letter to peter eckersley

dear peter,

welcome back!

by the time you read this, i will probably be long gone. we thought you were too once upon a time, but our dear friends managed to get your brain cryogenically-preserved at the last possible hour. it is so amazing that the scientists of my future have figured out how to bring you back, and i wish i were there to hear all about it. was it like being asleep? did they have to build a body for you? how much do you remember from your first life? and so on.

i’ve heard that the cryopreservation process may cause some memory loss, so i’ll pretend we are strangers for now. my name is yan, and i’m writing this in September of 2022, about a week after your death.

by sheer coincidence, you were the first person i met when i moved to the bay area in August 2012. i was 21 and starting grad school in physics at stanford. all of that changed when one of my (and your) personal heroes, aaron swartz, tragically killed himself in January of 2013. i decided to drop out of my PhD program and become a hacker. the problem was, i knew basically nothing about computer programming or infosec. i was pretty sure i could figure it out, but nobody in the security industry was willing to hire me as an intern with zero practical job experience and no CS degree.

eventually i came to you, a flamboyantly-dressed distant acquaintance who frequented the same SoMA warehouse parties and Noisebridge hackathons as me. i asked you for an internship at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), where you were working as the Director of Technology Projects; my proposal was that i would maintain the HTTPS Everywhere project for the next 3 months and be paid $5000 in total. you were skeptical but somehow i convinced you to give me a chance, possibly thanks to the fact that you were also a reformed physicist-turned-computer-scientist. that summer, i taught myself javascript and you taught me how to use git blame, the basics of HTTPS encryption, and how to write Firefox extensions as we sat in your office next to a never-ending pot of tea.

the summer flew by; my internship ended and i started contracting as a security auditor for a small startup. months later, you had a job opening for a staff technologist, and i begged you to let me interview for it. to my utter surprise, i got my dream job, and suddenly life became one comic-book battle after another. one of the most memorable days was when i unexpectedly ported most of the Privacy Badger Chrome extension to Firefox in a single modafinil-fueled all-nighter. i will never forget your shock and delight when you walked into work that morning and saw my working demo. shortly after that, i was promoted to senior staff technologist and started getting more recognition in infosec. when i finally left EFF after a bout of unexplained mid-20s depression, you had nothing but best wishes for my future despite valiant attempts to convince me to stay. you were always there for me as my career took off, but i truly wish i had told you back then how much of it you deserved credit for.

in truth, i learned much more from you than i could have imagined during the too-brief decade that we knew each other. you were the first role model i had outside of school. you taught me that you could be weird and look like you just stepped out of a steampunk novel, yet still be taken seriously by your peers. you taught me that being brilliant and engaging in bouts of social hedonism were not mutually exclusive. you taught me that tech job interviews which consist entirely of riddles and logic puzzles are excruciating and should never be done unless you want the interviewee to suffer (i know this because that’s how you interviewed me). you taught me what a negroni and a corpse reviver are, that succulents are the easiest plants to keep in your office, and that if you are never missing flights, it means you are spending too much time at the airport. when i decided to start a weekly podcast, naturally my first guest was you, and thus the podcast was forever doomed; i never did a second episode because you set the bar too high.

in 2015, one of your crazy projects that you had been plotting for years was finally coming to fruition. at the time we were working on HTTPS Everywhere, HTTPS was still the exception rather than the rule, largely because it cost money to get a TLS certificate. you had an impossible vision - what if we partnered with a certificate authority and gave out free certificates that could be auto-deployed and renewed from the command line with zero user interaction? you thought this would change everything and finally get us to near-100% encryption on the web, and you turned out to be spectacularly right. the project that eventually became Let’s Encrypt has issued TLS certificates to 260 million websites as of September 2022, and HTTPS Everywhere is now all-but-deprecated because the vast majority of sites support HTTPS.

as the official release date for Let’s Encrypt drew near, i took a fellowship at EFF for a month to finish writing the nginx plugin for the Let’s Encrypt client. james kasten, you and i submitted a DEF CON talk about Let’s Encrypt, which was rejected, but at the last minute we were able to present it after all because some other speakers couldn’t make it. to our surprise, the room booked for our talk was filled to capacity and a long line of people waiting in line couldn’t even get in! after the success of that talk, the two of us ended up giving a few more together at conferences like Enigma and NginxConf. we always made our slides at the last minute and rarely rehearsed, but you were such a pro at keeping the audience spellbound that all of them went off without a hitch.

on a more personal note, you always could tell when i was sad or if something was wrong. i don’t open up easily to people but you had a way of asking the right questions and making people be honest with themselves. one time we went out for pho near the EFF office and talked about some difficulties we both had growing up. i don’t remember what you said but i do remember feeling less alone at the end and thinking that things would probably get better. you never hesitated to give life advice in a way that was both brazen and deeply empathetic.

all of this was on my mind as i rushed through the hospital last friday night, frantically looking for your room. all of it was still on my mind as the nurse gave us the devastating news that your heart had just stopped beating. i had waited nearly a decade to tell you how much i appreciated you, and now i was a minute too late.

but now that you’ve returned through some miracle of science, i’m so glad to be given a second chance to tell you all this. thanks for everything, peter - i hope the world is every bit as fascinating, absurd, maddening, exquisite, and profound to you as it once was.

til we meet again,