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 Thursday morning when he was pulled aside by customs and border protection agents who told him 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, 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 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 his phone getting seized to Defcon attendees. 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.