Peter Eckersley (1979-2022)

Security engineer, digital rights activist, AI safety and policy researcher. Beloved in these communities.

Eckersley is most famous as an advocate/​developer at the intersection of tech and legal activism. His work on the Let’s Encrypt free certificate authority, HTTPS Everywhere, and the SSL Observatory made the internet significantly less terrible. Mizza:

Let’s Encrypt is something we all came to take for granted very quickly, but lots of us remember when getting an SSL certificate was an expensive and tedious process. Deprecating a billion dollar industry overnight and providing better security for internet users everywhere is a hell of a legacy to leave behind, and I hope one that will be an inspiration for generations to come.

He identified “device fingerprinting” as a major privacy hole and spent a long time trying to mitigate it. His PhD thesis was a characteristic mix of software engineering, economic theory, and law. We’d call it Web3 these days.

He was the 8th person ever to take the GWWC pledge. A few places say he was on the board of CEA US at some point.

Around 2017 he went into AI risk. His work bridged AI ethics and AI safety, covering recidivism prediction, self-driving cars, security against ML hacking, and military AI but also big-brain topics like impossibility theorems in social choice and ML, the cybersecurity implications of emulated minds, and the queer theory of human alignment. At the end, he was running the AI Objectives Institute (notable for mobilising people already concerned about corporate maximisation) and mentoring for PIBBSS. He was on many of the big “technical AI policy” papers of the last few years. The Alignment Problem is dedicated to him, after he convinced his friend Brian Christian of it.

During covid he worked intensely on private contact tracing algorithms. More than one notable service could not have been done without him.

He received a cancer diagnosis a week before his death. A minor consolation of dying in the present age is people telling beautiful stories about you for strangers and for posterity. So you can know that he was fluent in French, that he organised guerilla meetups, that he was an avid cyclist, that he was a memorable remedial teacher of programming. This is an Eckersley quotes account. Similarly, I can tell you he was writing code until one month before his death. He lived sans LinkedIn.