Don't try this at home


Notorious cypherpunk activist Jim Bell is heading to jail again for what he sees as a mere attempt to remind the government that surveillance can work both ways.

Government agents had been monitoring Bell since his 1996 essay "Assassination Politics," which suggests using secure cryptography to raise and pay bounties for the assassination of corrupt government officials. After the piece was widely distributed on the Internet, agents tapped into a cypherpunk mailing list and infiltrated meetings of a private "common law court" in Multnomah County, Oregon, to track Bell's goings-on and to collect incriminating evidence. Their surveillance of Bell even included installing a GPS tracking device on his car.

Such surveillance, combined with Bell's erratic, troublesome behavior, made him an easy target. After he was caught using fake Social Security numbers (he doesn't think anyone has a right to his real number) and setting off a stink bomb outside an IRS office, he was jailed for 3 years starting in 1997.

Now he's heading back to prison. In August, a court sentenced the MIT-graduate chemist to 10 years for stalking and harassing IRS agent Jeff Gordon. In response to the government's surveillance, Bell had been tracking down agents' home addresses (including Gordon's) through Department of Motor Vehicles records and showing up at their homes—and in one case stealing their mail. He was merely using public records for legitimate protest and free speech, he argued in court.