Tribute to Peter Eckersley, who made the internet a safer place for everyone

With deep sadness, EFF mourns the loss of our friend, technologist, activist and cybersecurity expert Peter Eckersley. Peter worked at EFF for a dozen years and was EFF’s Chief IT Officer for many of them. Peter has been a tremendous force in making the internet a safer place. He was recently diagnosed with colon cancer and died suddenly on Friday.

The impact of Peter’s work on web encryption cannot be underestimated. The fact that transport layer encryption on the web is so ubiquitous that it is almost invisible is due to the work that Peter started. It is a testament to the audacity of his vision that he decided we could and should encrypt the web, and his tenacity that he has maintained despite the disbelief of so many and a seemingly endless series of blockages and setbacks. There’s no doubt that without Peter’s relentless energy, cheerful coaxing strategy, and flexible intelligence, the project wouldn’t even have got off the ground, let alone succeeded in full.

While encrypting the web would have sufficed, Peter has played a central role in many groundbreaking projects to create free, open-source tools that protect the privacy of users’ Internet experience by encrypting communications between web servers and users. Peter’s work at EFF included privacy and security projects such as Panopticlick, HTTPS Everywhere, Switzerland, Certbot, privacy badgerand the SSL Observatory.

His most ambitious project was probably encryptthe free and automated certificate authority, which entered public beta in 2015. Peter had been incubating the project for several years, but was able to take advantage of the famous smiley picture leaks from Edward Snowden showing where SSL was added and removed, to build a coalition that actually made this possible. Let’s Encrypt helped the web transition from insecure HTTP connections that were vulnerable to eavesdropping, content injection, and cookie theft, to the more secure HTTPS, so websites could offer secure connections to their users and protect them from network-based threats.

By 2017, it had issued 100 million certificates; by 2021, approximately 90% of all web page visits will use HTTPS. To date, it has issued 260 million certificates.

Peter joined EFF as a Staff Technologist in 2006, when the role was largely advising EFF lawyers and activists so that our work was always technically correct and smart. His passion at the time was the mismatch between copyright and the workings of the internet, and he completed his PhD at EFF. Soon, Peter and the EFF’s first technologist, Seth Schoen, began to see how they could leverage existing small hacks on internet infrastructure systems to create technologies to enhance online security and freedom, and to ensure that the Internet serves everyone. They began building tech projects, recruited and hired some of the most innovative technologists in the internet, and soon established the EFF Technology Projects team as an integral pillar of EFF’s work.

Peter helped launch a tool to tell users when their ISP was interfering with their web traffic, called Suisse, which created a movement for open wireless networks. He has also documented net neutrality violations, advocated for keeping modern computing platforms open, and was one of the driving forces behind the campaign against SOPA/PIPA internet blacklisting legislation, after a call from his friend Aaron Swartz. The list goes on and on and includes advising EFF lawyers and activists on all kinds of litigation and lobbying efforts.

We’ll never forget the glint in his eye when Peter started talking about his latest idea, nor his broad smile as he continued to work to find a way to overcome obstacles and often almost physically bring his ideas to fruition. He had a knack for being able to widen the aperture of any problem, giving a perspective that could help see patterns and options that were previously invisible. His stubborn passion could sometimes cause him to step on toes and gloss over issues, but his heart and vision never strayed from what would best serve humanity as a whole. We’ll also never forget the time he secretly built a gazebo on the roof of EFF, or his modest fashion sense – one year we made special red socks with the EFF logo for the entire personal in order to honor his style.

Peter left EFF in 2018 to focus on research and bringing attention to the malicious use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. He founded Institute of AI Goalsa collaboration between big tech companies, civil society and academia, to ensure that AI is designed and used for the benefit of humanity.

Peter’s vision, boldness and commitment have made the web and the world a better place. We will miss him.

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