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Researcher detained at U.S. border, questioned about Wikileaks

Jacob Appelbaum, who volunteers with Wikileaks, is questioned for three hours and has mobile phones confiscated on his way back to the United States for a hacker show.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
4 min read

LAS VEGAS--A security researcher involved with the Wikileaks Web site was detained by U.S. agents at the border for three hours and questioned about the controversial whistleblower project as he entered the country on Thursday to attend a hacker conference here, sources said Saturday.

He was also approached by two FBI agents at the Defcon conference after his presentation on Saturday afternoon about the Tor Project.

Jacob Appelbaum, a Seattle-based programmer for the online privacy protection project called Tor, arrived at the Newark, N.J., airport on a flight from Holland on Thursday morning when he was pulled aside by customs and border protection agents, who told him that he was randomly selected for a security search, according to the sources familiar with the matter, who asked to remain anonymous.

Appelbaum, a U.S. citizen, was taken into a room and frisked, and his bag was searched. Receipts from his bag were photocopied, and his laptop was inspected, the sources said. Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and from the U.S. Army then told him that he was not under arrest but was being detained, the sources said. The officials asked questions about Wikileaks, asked for his opinions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and asked where Wikileaks founder Julian Assange could be found, but Appelbaum declined to comment without a lawyer present, according to the sources. Appelbaum was not permitted to make a phone call, the sources said.

After about three hours, Appelbaum was given his laptop back, but the agents kept his three mobile phones, sources said.

Asked for comment, Appelbaum declined to talk to CNET. However, he made reference to Defcon attendees about his phone getting seized. Following a question-and-answer session after his talk on the Tor Project, Appelbaum was asked by an attendee for his phone number. He replied, "that phone was seized."

Shortly thereafter, two casually dressed men identified themselves as FBI agents and asked to talk to him.

"We'd like to chat for a few minutes," one of the men said, adding, "we thought you might not want to." Appelbaum asked them if they were aware of "what happened to me," and one of them replied, "Yes, that's why we're here."

"I don't have anything to say," Appelbaum told them. One of the agents said they were interested in hearing about "rights being trampled" and said, "sometimes it's nice to have a conversation to flesh things out."

Marcia Hofmann, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was in the room and asked if the agents were at the event in an official capacity or for personal reasons. "A little of both," one of them said.

Appelbaum asked when his equipment would be returned, and one of the agents said, "We aren't involved in that; we have no idea," and walked away when Appelbaum declined to talk further.

The agents declined to identify themselves to CNET. They said they were attending the conference and declined to talk further.

Appelbaum is a hacker and security researcher who co-founded the Noisebridge hacker space in San Francisco's Mission District. He has also worked to bypass the security of "smart" parking meters, unearth flaws in Web security certificates, and discover a novel way to bypass hard-drive encryption.

At the Next HOPE hacker conference in New York in mid-July, Appelbaum filled in for Assange, the controversial figure who has become the public face of Wikileaks. Assange skipped his appearance at Next HOPE on the expectation that Homeland Security agents would be looking for him. After his own presentation at Next HOPE, Appelbaum made a hasty exit and hopped on a flight to Europe.

Jacob Appelbaum at Next HOPE conference
Jacob Appelbaum, Wikileaks contributor and Tor Project programmer, speaks at the Next HOPE hacker conference in mid-July. Declan McCullagh/CNET

While he was on stage at Next HOPE, Appelbaum urged the largely sympathetic audience to support Wikileaks by volunteering or by donating money, by addressing recent criticisms of the document-publishing Web site, and by boasting that Wikileaks remains uncensorable. "You can try to take us down...but you can't stop us," he said. He also challenged modern U.S. foreign policy and called for civil disobedience in the form of exposing heavily guarded secrets.

Appelbaum told the Next HOPE audience that though he's significantly involved in Wikileaks, he has no access to classified U.S. data that may have been sent to the site.

Wikileaks has been in the spotlight since it posted a video in April of a U.S. airstrike in Iraq in 2007. The video showed an Apache helicopter shooting at a group of people on the street and at a van that pulled up to rescue the injured. Several children were wounded, and two Reuters journalists, along with unarmed Iraqi civilians, were killed. The episode generated an outpouring of antimilitary sentiment.

The release of the video was tied to U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who was arrested in June at a military base near Baghdad. Hacker Adrian Lamo confirmed to CNET that he had informed U.S. officials that Manning had confessed to leaking the video and other materials.

About a week ago, Wikileaks released more than 75,000 confidential files related to the war in Afghanistan, prompting White House, National Security Agency, and other U.S. officials to condemn the site and launch an investigation.

The Afghan War Diary page on Wikileaks was recently updated to include a mystery file entitled "insurance." It's unclear what the file contains because it is encrypted.

(CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.)

Updated at 5:25 p.m. PDT with background on Wikileaks.