With deep sadness, EFF mourns the loss of our friend, the technologist, activist, and cybersecurity expert Peter Eckersley. Peter worked at EFF for a dozen years and was EFF’s Chief Computer Scientist for many of those. Peter was a tremendous force in making the internet a safer place. He was recently diagnosed with colon cancer and passed away suddenly on Friday.
The impact of Peter’s work on encrypting the web cannot be overstated. The fact that transport layer encryption on the web is so ubiquitous that it's nearly invisible is thanks to the work Peter began. It’s a testament to the boldness of his vision that he decided that we could and should encrypt the web, and to his sheer tenacity that he kept at it despite disbelief from so many, and a seemingly endless series of blockages and setbacks. There is no doubt that without Peter’s relentless energy, his strategy of cheerful cajoling, and his flexible cleverness, the project would not have even launched, much less succeeded so thoroughly.
While encrypting the web would have been enough, Peter 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 Badger, and the SSL Observatory.
His most ambitious project was probably Let’s Encrypt, the free and automated certificate authority, which entered public beta in 2015. Peter had been incubating the project for several years, but was able to leverage the famous “smiley face” image from the Edward Snowden leaks showing where SSL was added and removed, to build a coalition that actually made it happen. Let’s Encrypt fostered the web’s transition from non-secure HTTP connections that were vulnerable to eavesdropping, content injection, and cookie stealing, 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, about 90% of all web page visits use HTTPS. As of today it has issued over a billion certificates to over 280 million websites.
Peter joined EFF as a staff technologist in 2006, when the role was largely to advise EFF’s lawyers and activists so that our work was always technically correct and smart. His passion at the time was the mismatch between copyright law and how the Internet functions, and he finished his PhD while at EFF. Soon, Peter and EFF’s first staff technologist Seth Schoen began to see ways they could leverage small hacks existing to internet infrastructure systems to build technologies to spur more security and freedom online, as well as ensure that the internet served everyone. They began to build technical projects, recruited and hired some of the internet's most innovative technologists, and before long created EFF’s Technology Projects Team as a full pillar of EFF’s work.
Peter helped launch a tool to tell uses when their ISP was interfering in their web traffic, called Switzerland, which created a movement for open wireless networks. He also documented violations of net neutrality, advocated for keeping modern computer platforms open, and was a driving force behind the campaign against SOPA/PIPA internet blacklist legislation, after a call from his friend Aaron Swartz. The list goes on and on and includes advising EFF lawyers and activists on all manner of litigation and lobbying efforts.
We'll never forget the gleam in his eye as Peter started talking about his latest idea, nor his wide smile as he kept working to find a way to overcome obstacles and often almost bodily carry his ideas into being. He had the gift of being able to widen the aperture of any problem, giving a perspective that could help see patterns and options that were previously invisible. His single-minded passion could sometimes lead him to step on toes and gloss over problems, but his heart and vision never wavered 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 puckish fashion sense—one year we made special red EFF-logo socks for the entire staff to honor his style.
Peter left EFF in 2018 to focus on studying and calling attention to the malicious use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. He founded AI Objectives Institute, a collaboration between major technology companies, civil society, and academia, to ensure that AI is designed and used to benefit humanity.
Peter’s vision, audacity, and commitment made the web, and the world, a better place. We will miss him.