The Hard Truth About Being an 'Anon'

If you want to stay pseudonymous in crypto, you have to work for it – or maybe pay for it.

By Daniel KuhnLayer 2
Feb 10, 2022 at 7:56 p.m. UTCUpdated Feb 10, 2022 at 8:44 p.m. UTC
By Daniel KuhnLayer 2
Feb 10, 2022 at 7:56 p.m. UTCUpdated Feb 10, 2022 at 8:44 p.m. UTC

Daniel Kuhn is a features reporter and assistant opinion editor for CoinDesk's Layer 2. He owns BTC and ETH.

Here’s one take on formerly anonymous figures in the crypto world being publicly revealed: The two founders of the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) weren’t “doxed” by BuzzFeed News. In fact, they doxed themselves.

Last week, the crypto community was embroiled in a debate about journalistic ethics and the right to remain anonymous online. This came after BuzzFeed News senior technology reporter Katie Notopoulos published the real names, along with some publicly available information, of “Gordon Goner” and “Gargamel,” two pseudonymous co-founders of arguably the most successful NFT (non-fungible token) project to date.

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Notopoulos reportedly first identified Greg Solano through publicly available documents related to Yuga Labs, the company behind BAYC, which is incorporated in Delaware. Solano has chosen the name “Gargamel.” Additional documents linked Solano to Wylie Aronow, aka “Gordon Goner.”

You can decide for yourself whether this is newsworthy information. Notopoulos reasoned that the public has the right to know the real men behind this cultural storm. BAYC has licensing deals, and it has a lot of rich and powerful members as well as a reported cash injection on the way from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, according to Axios, valuing the firm at $5 billion.

The project may have a high valuation, but it’s also just a social club built around crudely drawn cartoon apes. It’s a side project of two unassuming writers that went faster and further than anyone expected it to. There’s a good conversation to be had around doxing, especially in this instance.

Yet, as it stands, Solano doxed himself. He signed a document that was then made publicly available. He signed that document because he wanted to legitimize Yuga Lab’s operations – and to do that, there are certain prerequisites in U.S. law.

Solano and Aronow could have chosen to keep BAYC as a widely successful NFT experiment and their identities secure. But they signed incorporation documents because there was a fortune to be made. It was in that moment of choice that the BAYC founders doxed themselves, forfeiting their right to privacy and secrecy.

Now listen ye anons, I believe – along with my employer, which has a policy of respecting sources’ pseudonyms – that your identities are valid. That there is a general right to remain unknown, that pseudonymous celebrities may be trustworthy (within reason) based solely on the reputations they build. But if you must remain unknown, then you must also do everything you can to ensure that. No one is assisting you here.

Crypto is an adversarial environment. Reporters are paid to bring private details to light. Competitors want your business secrets. The public has an unquenchable thirst for gossip. Scammers want to scam you, and knowing your secrets is leverage.

0xngmi, the pseudonymous founder of DefiLlama, a data aggregator, grasps this. Last weekend, in the midst of public debate about doxing, he put out a “bug bounty” on himself. (Though I'm using gendered language as convention, I do not know 0xngmi's gender.) “If anyone DMs me with my real identity along with an explanation of how you found it I'll send you 1 ETH,” he tweeted.

The goal was clear: to wrap up any loose ends related to his alter ego. DefiLlama has surged in popularity, and it’s likely 0xngmi’s reputation will become more valuable alongside it.

“The main reason for it was that I saw how BAYC founders got doxxed through company incorporation records,” 0xngmi told CoinDesk in a direct message. The simple fact is, no matter how careful you think you are, you have likely made mistakes. So often in life we find that other people know us better than we know ourselves.

0xngmi said that 178 people took up his offer, claiming they found his identity. Most made erroneous assumptions – the closest someone got was “an approximation of my time zone,” he claims. Someone else managed to dox another team member of DefiLlama and received the ETH bounty.

0xngmi has since closed the effort, because people started “spamming” his friends looking for useful information, which he said “bothers people.” An important aspect of "OPSEC," or operational security, is knowing where other people look. And even if there is no guarantee 0xngmi’s identity is secure, it might bring a little peace of mind having 178 examples of how people think.

This is a problem 0xngmi has been considering for a long time. Last summer, he led an open-source effort to write “​​a guide on how to stay anon.” It’s a detailed document based on a lot of “trial and error,” he said.

Interestingly, the first step is to think about the “online persona you’d want to be perceived, remembered and recognized] by,” he said. His own fake name is a combination of 0x, which is the address prefix used by many other anons, and ngmi, which stands for not going to make it. It’s “self-deprecating.”

Obviously, 0xngmi has a desire to fit in – perhaps to blend in. It’s easy to spin up an alter ego, harder to sustain it and even harder to build trust as an “anon.” And if you want to have true influence, it’ll be a difficult choice between protecting your identity and leveraging your real-life connections – even in crypto where the practice is normalized.

“For me going anon meant a reset to 0. I had been building in crypto for some time, and when I went anon, that meant I had to start from zero, losing all the work I had put into my reputation, relationships, past work and studies,” 0xngmi said. “People will trust you less, since the cost of doing something bad is lower for anons and we might be hiding something (eg: ex-convicts or ex-scammers),” he added.

Difficult though it may be, 0xngmi suggested there is something of an ethical imperative to going dark. It ties into crypto’s resistance to standards and practices like know-your-customer and anti-money-laundering regulations, which require users to identify themselves to perform basic financial tasks that would be wholly legal if they were using physical cash.

“Blockchains flip that [model] on its head. You have your money, and you can use it any way you want, whether that be by putting it on straight-up Ponzis, buying worthless coins or farming on some protocol with an anon founder that could rug the whole thing,” 0xngmi wrote in a blog reflecting on BAYC.

To some extent, crypto is playing by a new set of rules. It stands opposed to corporate and government power in trying to give people the ability to interact directly in a peer-to-peer fashion. It’s sold out a bit – giving an inch here and there for profits. It’s surrounded by rule-makers. It’s been forced to capitulate, sometimes.

Not everyone is playing by crypto’s rules. Why would you expect otherwise? If you want to be anonymous, then you must cover your tracks. Rules were meant to be broken, after all.

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Daniel Kuhn is a features reporter and assistant opinion editor for CoinDesk's Layer 2. He owns BTC and ETH.

Daniel Kuhn is a features reporter and assistant opinion editor for CoinDesk's Layer 2. He owns BTC and ETH.

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