Debian blackmail and Thought Reform Quickstart

Over the past twelve months, concerned developers have spoken out publicly about blackmail in Debian. It has been referred to as analogous to Thought Reform, the brainwashing programs of the totalitarian Chinese communist state and many former eastern European communist dictatorships.

The regime operating this program are the Debian Account Managers, comprising Enrico Zini, Joerg Jaspert and Jonathan Wiltshire.

Using the public complaints about the process, let's break it down into easy steps. Like Zini, Jaspert and Wiltshire did at Christmas 2018, you could make this into a holiday project and start your own regime during a long weekend.

Begin with the conclusion

Normally, an expulsion or imprisonment comes at the end of an inquiry or investigation. In a blackmail program, the process is reversed.

In Debian's case, this involves removing somebody from the Debian keyring. This is something that is relatively easy for Zini, Jaspert and Wiltshire to do using their position in the project.

Add something menacing

For some developers, simply removing them from the keyring can cause immediate problems with their employment as they can no longer upload packages to Debian if they are not included in the Debian keyring. Without saying any more, Zini, Jaspert and Wiltshire now have the victim's full attention.

People have been removed for all kinds of reasons in the past: most simply resigned from the project. At this point, to create fear in the victim, Zini, Joerg and Wiltshire have to add some accusation, stated as if it was an undeniable act of wrongdoing.

In the case of Dr Norbert Preining, the blackmailers had been keeping a log of every minor controversy he encountered in the last decade and dragged them all out as the basis of their case. For example:

Not that other[4] posts[5] from you seem to be respectful or constructive, nor does it appear to be the[6] case[7] with[8] loads[9] of[10] mailing[11] list[12] posts[13]. This is damaging the working environment in the project, with people needing to step[14] in[15] to restore a decent working environmet after one of your interventions. These issues have[16] been[17] raised[18] to you[19] several[20] times[21] over[22] the years, and you have normally responded by denying the issues and attacking the people who tried to raise them. See for example[23].

These techniques can also be used with people who are not Debian Developers, it simply involves changing the threat. For example, Debian might threaten somebody's participation in GSoC or their access to diversity and travel funds.

Make the victim feel alone

In full-scale communist regimes, after the victim has been shown evidence of their sins, they will be locked in solitary confinement for some weeks.

In Debian, Zini, Jaspert and Wiltshire simulate solitary confinement using shame. They tell the victim that the punishment is secret:

We are sending this email privately, leaving its disclosure as your decision (although traces in public databases are unavoidable).

Shame is a powerful emotion. People feel shame even when they didn't do anything wrong. Many victims of rape never report the crime because of shame: the emotion is stronger in their head than in the head of the perpetrator. With a comment like that above, Zini, Jaspert and Wiltshire aspire to create a prison of shame for their victim.

A hint of further consequences

The declaration that the punishment is private/secret also serves a further purpose: Zini, Jaspert and Wiltshire are making a veiled threat that they will either publicly disclose or leak the punishment.

Their victim will recall incidents of both types of exposure.

For example, the public lynching of Jacob Appelbaum on allegations of sex abuse, which the Debian Project Leader discussed with a journalist, denouncing Appelbaum. Zini, Jaspert and Wiltshire's hope is that their victim will fear similar public humiliation. Note: the people who made accusations against Appelbaum withdrew them after wrecking his career.

In 2018, the Debian Project Leader used an Albanian to spread gossip about another volunteer who had resigned from some voluntary roles at a time of grief.

Many Debian Developers will recall incidents like this and will perceive a veiled threat. Zini, Jaspert and Wiltshire add to the sense of apprehension by using similar subject lines and other phrases in all of the blackmail messages they send. The victim subconsciously joins the dots, associating their own predicament with the previous public shamings.

A direction or hint about something the victim should do

People don't usually operate blackmail schemes for practice, they have some goal in mind.

For example, Zini, Jaspert and Wiltshire might want somebody to stop asking questions about Google money in another organization like FSFE.

A third party may send the blackmail victim the instruction: resign from that other role or stop asking those questions. Be a team player. Accept a free trip to a conference.

Other volunteers may act like friends of the victim, suggesting the victim writes a public confessionapology, like Dr Preining did in 2019, notice the reference to other people who directed him how to act:

Thanks to some fellow DDs who reminded me of these items
the invaluable help of some fellow DDs

Reminded and help? Or the delivery of instructions from the blackmailers by somebody pretending to be friendly?


Please don't try this stuff at home.

The prison of shame described in this article is a dangerous technique well known in psychological warfare (PsyOps). Victims of shaming, blackmail and rape have all been known to suffer similar consequences, up to and including suicides.