Of Bitcoin and doxxing: Is revealing Satoshi Nakamoto’s identity okay because it was Newsweek and not Reddit?

If you don’t spend a lot of time on the internet, or in forums on websites like Reddit and 4chan, you might not have heard of the term “doxxing,” but it is becoming more and more relevant, especially as the media and journalism become something that anyone can engage in, not just accredited professionals. In the latest incident to highlight the practice, Newsweek tracked down a man it believes to be the creator of Bitcoin — a 64-year-old named Satoshi Nakamoto — and published details about his personal life, along with a photo of his house and car.

To many, this probably sounds a lot like a fairly normal story: A man who may (or may not) have created one of the first real “crypto currencies,” an invention that could destabilize the entire global banking and payments industry — and a man who may be worth half a billion dollars or so, based on his reported personal holdings in Bitcoin — is revealed to be an aging model-train enthusiast living in San Bernardino, California in a modest two-storey home. When confronted by a Newsweek journalist about his past, he becomes angry and calls the police.

The term “doxxing,” which is derived from a slang word for “documents,” is used on Reddit and in other internet communities to refer to the process of identifying someone who doesn’t want to be identified — digging up personal and/or private or semi-private details about their life, and posting them on a public forum of some kind. This is also often referred to as “outing,” and it’s considered to be a somewhat hostile act, since it involves forcing someone to become more public than they want to, in a way they may not have volunteered for.

Who determines what’s in the public interest?

Broadly speaking, this is what some users of a particular sub-Reddit did when they mis-identified one of the suspects in the Boston bombings (something CNN and other news outlets also did, it should be noted). It’s also what a Grantland writer did to Dr. V, who turned out to be a transgendered woman and subsequently committed suicide. And it’s what Gawker did to a controversial Reddit moderator named Violentacrez, a man they tracked down and forced to reveal his identity.

To some — including many professional journalists to whom I posed the question on Twitter — there is no similarity between what Reddit and other forums do and what Newsweek did with Satoshi Nakamoto. One is ethical and professional journalism at work on a matter of “public interest,” they argued, while the other is a mob of unruly and anonymous internet users who are just in it for the laughs (or “lulz”), and who like nothing more than destroying someone’s life by doing things like revealing personal information about the author of the Newsweek piece.

If doxxing is reporting, everyone is doing it

But are these things really so different? Newsweek included many personal details about Nakamoto, including his work history and details about his extended family, and even his personal health — and they posted a photo of his home, one in which you could clearly see his address and the licence plate on his car. What if that man isn’t even the “real” Satoshi Nakamoto? Then an elderly man in poor physical health has been mis-identified as a Bitcoin multimillionaire, something that could have very real repercussions for him and his family.

After the Newsweek story was published, journalists from a number of outlets including the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press converged on Nakamoto’s house and demanded to know whether he was the creator of Bitcoin. After a somewhat farcical car chase along the freeway, Nakamoto told an AP reporter over lunch that he is not the man who invented Bitcoin and that his comments were misconstrued by Newsweek.

Obviously, Bitcoin is a story with a ton of public interest attached to it. But is the exact identity and physical location of its alleged creator necessarily part of that? Reddit was attacked for using ham-handed methods to try and determine the identity of the Boston bomber, and for getting it wrong — but how do we know that Newsweek’s methods were any better? The story makes reference to record searches and the use of forensic investigators, but the bulk of the “evidence” for his identity remains highly circumstantial.

The reason I think it’s important to ask these kinds of questions isn’t because I believe that Reddit is or should be the model for everything journalistic (as someone alleged during a Twitter discussion). It’s because I think these kinds of questions are important for everyone to ask about what journalism has become, or is becoming — not just when it’s something from Reddit or Grantland.

More than anything, stories like Newsweek‘s piece on Nakamoto and Grantland’s piece on Dr. V. reinforce just how blurry the line is between revealing information “in the public interest” about a person’s private life, and forcing someone to become public in a way they never anticipated, and a way that could have real repercussions for them. That’s a discussion that’s worth having regardless of whether the person doing the revealing is a “professional” journalist or not.

Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Albert Chau and Thinkstock / Tomwang112