Peter Eckersley Helped Encrypt Internet Traffic to Foil Snoops


Peter Eckersley,

who earned a Ph.D. in computer science and law from the University of Melbourne in Australia, found a mission in San Francisco: Protecting the world from online snooping.

In 2006, Dr. Eckersley was hired by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group. Over the next dozen years, he evolved from a technologist who advised the organization’s lawyers on technical matters to a leader on a series of software projects that improved privacy on the internet, former colleagues said.

The software had names including Privacy Badger, Panopticlick and HTTPS Everywhere. None of them became household names, but they were always “technically cool and very clever,” said Seth Schoen, a consultant who worked with Dr. Eckersley at the foundation.

His most notable project was one he co-founded with developers from Mozilla Corp. and the University of Michigan. It was called Let’s Encrypt. Started in 2012, a year before Edward Snowden revealed the presence of widespread surveillance programs on the internet, Let’s Encrypt gave website owners an easy way to encrypt their internet traffic, protecting it from prying eyes. The project now is run by a nonprofit, the Internet Security Research Group.

Dr. Eckersley, known for his flamboyant wardrobe and dedication to bicycling everywhere, died Sept. 2 of complications from treatment for colon cancer. He was 44.

“Peter wasn’t just looking for the next startup idea. He was fundamentally concerned with leaving the internet and the world a better place,” said Benjamin Mako Hill, an assistant professor at the University of Washington. “And he was incredibly successful at doing it.”

He saw the internet as a minefield of threats to privacy. “Our reading habits online encompass everything we’re thinking about, political and religious views, health and relationship problems,” Dr. Eckersley told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. “Do you want to have an invisible person peering over your shoulder as you walk through the library?”

The idea that a tiny nonprofit like the Electronic Frontier Foundation could find a way to encrypt hundreds of millions of websites initially seemed far-fetched, said

Cindy Cohn,

executive director of the group. “Sure enough, he did it,” she said.

Peter Daniel Eckersley was born in 1978 in Melbourne. His mother was an architect specialized in preserving historic buildings. His father was an electrical engineer and an early adopter of personal computers, who passed that interest along to his son.

Peter was already coding software by age 6 or 7, said his sister, Nicole Eckersley. While majoring in computer science at the University of Melbourne, he also delved into philosophy, ethics, physics, politics and the law.

The most secure way to message someone privately is with a platform offering end-to-end encryption. But messaging apps vary widely when it comes to privacy and security. So how do you know when your messages are the most secure? WSJ’s Dalvin Brown explains. Illustration: Adele Morgan

One of the many friends he made during his college years was Toby Ord, now a senior research fellow in philosophy at Oxford University. In 2009, Dr. Ord helped launch an international organization called Giving What We Can to encourage generous donations to the most effective charities. Dr. Eckersley was a charter member.

In 2018, Dr. Eckersley left the Electronic Frontier Foundation to concentrate on research into ethical issues arising from the spread of artificial intelligence and machine learning. He co-founded the AI Objectives Institute.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, he helped organize a project in which residents of four adjacent homes in San Francisco have merged their backyards and hold regular happy hours, concerts and other group activities.

Dr. Eckersley, who wasn’t married, is survived by his father and sister.

He was easy to spot and hard to forget. A friend recalled their first meeting: “He had what seemed like a crown of curly green hair, intense bushy eyebrows, a white satin shirt with beautifully patterned vest, pinstripe baggy pants that cinched tight just below his knees, patterned knee-high socks, leather buckled shoes, and I swear a silver chain that must be leading to a pocket watch.”

A connoisseur of espresso and obscure cocktails, he was renowned for his skill at hosting parties, leading impromptu excursions (often involving a quest for dumplings) and making introductions among a vortex of friends.

To meet him was to step into an “interdimensional portal” leading to a torrent of new ideas and sensations, a friend said at a celebration of his life.

Shortly before he died, Dr. Eckersley typed a request to his friends: “If possible, please plasticize or vitrify my brain and leave it on a shelf somewhere with a plaque or durable sticky note that says, ‘scan me.’ ” That set off a scramble to find a cryonics organization to preserve his brain within 24 hours of death in the hope that one day it will be possible to allow him to think and communicate anew.

The necessary fundraising and arrangements were completed about 23 hours after he died, said Elizabeth Kicko-MacDougall, a friend and nurse who helped him during his final days in a San Francisco hospital.

“We’ll see in a thousand years if it works,” said Ms. Kicko-MacDougall. She described Dr. Eckersley as “a beautiful chaos monkey” who was “like a god among his friends.”

Write to James R. Hagerty at [email protected] and Robert McMillan at [email protected]

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