So Newsweek found the founder of Bitcoin. That’s a great journalistic coup. It’s also precisely the kind of story that made me queasy about journalism, and often left me sitting right on a razor’s edge while covering topic like privacy, technology, hackers and consumer rights.
Journalism, by definition, violates people’s privacy. The best definition of news I’ve ever heard is telling the world something that someone, somewhere, does’t want the world to know. Every story makes someone angry. Otherwise, it’s not a story.
Of course, that’s just the beginning of the discussion, not the end. Good journalists constantly weigh the value of society learning about something with the pain you are causing the target of the story, and make the best choice they can. Often, this is easy. When a mayor is stealing money, you tell on him. The public deserves to know even if he goes to jail. Just as often, this is very difficult. You learn early on as a journalist that every time there is a tragedy, you have to talk to surviving family members about someone who just died. And when they say no, you have to ask twice. That’s the job.
But more than once, I can tell you, I’ve ripped up my notes after such a conversation. I like to think we are human first, journalists second.
So now we have the incredibly curious case of Satoshi Nakamoto, the alleged founder of Bitcoin. For plenty of reasons, he was a recluse. Newsweek splattered his face, and his life, all over the world this week. The story is largely an ode to using the kind of proprietary, for profit, privacy-killing databases I hate. The kind of tools that obsessive ex-boyfriends use to stalk former beaus. The kind of tools that giddy, unethical journalists use in newsrooms across America to do deep background checks on prospective dates. Unethical cops have a field day with them, too. But they are also the kind of tools that investigators of all stripes use to find bad guys and expose them. (I’m intentionally not naming any of them.)
I remember talking to Robert O’Harrow, the fine Washington Post reporter and author of No Place To Hide, who wrote one of the first scary privacy books of our time. It detailed all the databases that governments and corporations maintain about U.S. citizens. Journalists are part of the problem, he said, because we love these tools.
Back to Bitcoin’s founder. Like many true hackers, he’s quirky and desires anonymity. Real hackers want to make stuff work and be left alone. Newsweek decided to reject his desire for privacy. This bothers the part of me that loves what hackers stand for; and the way they did it bothers the part of me that’s terrified by our panopticon-like future. I do think the right to be left alone is a human right, and every step we take down this road is another step towards ending human privacy. As a thought experiment, substitute your own name for Nakamoto’s name in every place it turns up in the story. Imagine someone interviewing every relative you have, every former boss, looking for any bit or byte they could find about you, and telling the world. (By the way, Nakamoto’s Achilles Heel seems to have been his naturalization registration card. Seems unfair that immigrants have even less privacy.)
The real question, of course, is this: Was it worth it?
Yes, is the answer. Bitcoin, or whatever follows Bitcoin, has the potential to cause a revolution. It’s a real threat to central banking systems. It’s quite possibly a real boon to consumers, particularly those who want to move their money around the world without paying hefty fees for nothing. And of course, it’s a gift to criminals. Understanding Bitcoin’s origins and the founder’s philosophy is clearly of massive public interest. It’s worth violating his privacy. To a point.
I grew more and more uncomfortable as I read the Newsweek story, as the innocuous (to me) details piled up. It began to feel more like showing off than a revealing portrait. Or at least, it read more like a legal brief, where every detail in the case against Nakamoto was laid out, every shred of evidence proving that the magazine had found its man. It felt gratuitous.
I trust you, Newsweek, that’s him. He told you. There were witnesses! Now, get on with the reasons why he matters to the rest of us, which this story was sadly short on.
In the privacy vs. public interest debate I laid out above, I omitted a very important variable — salacious details designed to merely make you look. Of course, those are an incredibly important part of storytelling in today’s noisy world. Another reason why journalism makes me queasy.
It’s not an easy job. I am in no way suggesting Newsweek shouldn’t have done the story; I certainly would have done it. And contacting all the family members and co-workers is just good journalism. But would I have published a picture of him and his house? Would I have filled out a magazine-length piece that’s devoid of interviews with the subject by quoting all those family members? I hope not.