Crypto’s Challenge: Right-to-Privacy vs. Right-to-Know

Two recent stories highlight the tension between an individual's right to anonymity and journalism's public mission.

Feb 11, 2022 at 7:41 p.m. UTC
Feb 11, 2022 at 7:41 p.m. UTC

Michael J. Casey is CoinDesk's Chief Content Officer.

It was striking how quickly Crypto Twitter’s obsessions this week went from "How dare you dox that couple of Floridians" to "Woo-hoo, give me all the crazy dox you’ve got on that New York couple."

Many in the community were incensed when BuzzFeed journalist Katie Notopoulos revealed the identities of the two founders of the iconic NFT project the Bored Ape Yacht Club, accusing her of “doxing” them against their wishes to remain anonymous.

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By contrast, after two people were arrested Tuesday on federal charges of conspiring to launder proceeds of the 2016 Bitfinex hack, there seemed to be an insatiable demand for details on the lives of a couple from whom the Department of Justice says it seized a gobsmacking $3.6 billion worth of ill-gotten bitcoin. Most of all, the crypto community delighted in the absurdist spectacle of rap videos by Heather Morgan, whose LinkedIn account describes her as a “serial entrepreneur,” a “SaaS Investor,” and a “Surrealist Artist/Rapper.”

Clearly, these cases are different.

With Wylie Aronow and Greg Salano, the identified founders of BAYC creator Yuga Labs, there’s no suggestion of criminality. We should accept at face value the notion that when they adopted the pseudonyms of, respectively, “Gordon Goner'' and “Gargamel,” they were simply exercising a civil right to privacy that deserves respect.

It’s quite different for Morgan and her husband, Ilya "Dutch" Lichtenstein. Assuming they’re guilty of the crimes they allegedly committed, a reasonable person can argue they forfeited that right. (We’ll come back to those words “assuming” and “allegedly.”)

Nonetheless, these two cases’ juxtaposition – coming on the heels of a revelation that a founder of DeFi protocol Wonderland (0xSifu) was in fact Michael Patryn, a co-founder of scandalous Canadian crypto exchange QuadrigaCX – compels us to think about what we care about as individuals and as a society. It gives us a lens on where the lines lie between a shared need for information versus the mere desire for it, and thus how far the right to privacy extends.

These are trade-offs, and they are not nearly as easily determined as either side makes it out to be. Many in the crypto community who defend pseudonymity at all costs fail to acknowledge that there must be a line beyond which a public “right-to-know” exists. And, on the other side, journalists who frequently trumpet that right, tend to gloss over how much their story is driven by the need to titillate their readers (and please their bosses), or that doxing people has far-reaching consequences.

Right-to-know or clickbait?

My colleague, media reporter Will Gottsegen, whipped up the hornets’ nest this week when he came to the defense of BuzzFeed’s Notopoulos in a column with the headline “Of Course It’s OK to Out the BAYC Founders.” Will put it this way: “Aronow and Solano are at the helm of a business that’s potentially worth billions of dollars. Apes have flooded the market and saturated the culture. Why shouldn’t a journalist go looking for more details?”

There’s great responsibility that comes from leading something as transformative as the BAYC project. Whether the subject has done anything wrong may be irrelevant. If such individuals have a capacity to influence others’ well-being far greater than most people, shouldn’t we have a means of keeping them accountable in case they misbehave? Too often, the hacks and “rug pulls” that keep draining billions of dollars out of DeFi protocols are the work of insiders operating in the shadows.

The counterpoint is that to develop decentralized systems that empower users while disempowering Silicon Valley’s and Wall Street’s middlemen, we must make privacy a foundational principle. As proponents of crypto-engineered financial inclusion argue, identity requirements in incumbent centralized systems are a gatekeeping mechanism for enforcing control. To hold up that principle, surely we need to respect it for all, starting with those who build these systems.

It’s also hard to disentangle the public’s right-to-know from its appetite for a good yarn or from the business interests that feed off it. Notopoulos’ article argued, not unreasonably, that the BAYC founders should be held accountable for some of the unsavory aspects of their project – the claims, for example, that its images perpetuate a racist trope and that the artist who inspired the work has not been fairly compensated. Yet the BuzzFeed business model, like most digital media outlets, is based on ad models that rely on reader clicks (also true, to some extent, of CoinDesk). The reality is that “gotcha” articles that dox someone against their will are quite effective at achieving that.

It’s the same base instinct that drove people to scroll through social media gawking at the videos of Heather Morgan’s rapper alter ego “RazzleKhan.” We love this stuff: laughing at other people’s failure, delighting in them being caught out. Is that the right instinct on which to base a public’s right-to-know?

Privacy-forward media policies

At CoinDesk, we’ve taken a different posture on privacy than most other news organizations.

Mainstream outlets tend to insist that, in the absence of a credible threat of violence against them, sources should be identified on the grounds they can be held accountable to their words when their reputation is on the line. In a policy statement two years ago, our ethics and standards editor Marc Hochstein took a more nuanced and modern position that an individual’s choice to remain unidentified should be respected except in those cases where it is clearly in the public interest to know that identity. It was partly founded on the idea that, in crypto, pseudonymous identities also have a reputation that their owners are incentivized to uphold.

Note that the bar for exemptions to the policy is set differently in each case. Whereas traditional newsrooms put the onus on the source to demonstrate why their right to privacy trumps our right-to-know, we make it incumbent on the journalist to show that public interest outweighs the private interest.

This policy has manifested some interesting approaches. For some time we ran op-eds by a columnist who wrote under the pseudonym of Hasu. More recently, the team that’s programming Consensus in June contracted the NFT influencer known as Punk 6529 with a commitment that their avatar and audio can appear in a manner that protects that person’s identity.

Partly, our posture reflects an affinity with some of the core principles upon which cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies were founded, including the notion that privacy-protecting technology is not only vital to preserve our humanity in the digital age, but can empower people to forge a more dynamic, innovative economy.

As my own writings should demonstrate – here, here and here, for example – I personally believe the invasions of privacy executed by Web 2 platforms over the past two decades, with their insidious extraction of our data, comprise one of the biggest threats to the liberal democratic ideals for which hundreds of millions shed blood in the pre-internet 20th century.

And yet, as a journalist of three decades, I’m also acutely aware of another foundational element of that liberal democratic ideal: the right of a free press to uncover relevant, newsworthy information that people do not want revealed.

Coming up with defensible rules around this dilemma is really difficult. Still, perhaps more than ever, it’s vital that we establish and follow them.

Journalists, the crypto community, all of us: we need dialogue around how to balance the right to privacy and the public’s inalienable right-to-know.

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The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups. As part of their compensation, certain CoinDesk employees, including editorial employees, may receive exposure to DCG equity in the form of stock appreciation rights, which vest over a multi-year period. CoinDesk journalists are not allowed to purchase stock outright in DCG.

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Michael J. Casey is CoinDesk's Chief Content Officer.

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