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The Fine Line Between “Getting” a News Story and Protecting Privacy

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IgniteX specializes in positioning international technology startups for rapid growth in the USA. We have more than 20 years of experience launching products with public relations and marketing strategies. Here are some of the things we've learned along the way. 

The Fine Line Between “Getting” a News Story and Protecting Privacy

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Leah Goodman’s recent article in Newsweek, “The Face Behind Bitcoin,” exposing the alleged identity of Bitcoin’s inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, raises many important questions about the boundaries and ethics of journalistic freedom.  By using the technique of “doxing,” using sources on the Internet to trace someone and gather information about them, Ms. Goodman outed Mr. Nakomoto. Leah Goodman’s recent article in Newsweek, “The Face Behind Bitcoin,” exposing the alleged identity of Bitcoin’s inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, raises many important questions about the boundaries and ethics of journalistic freedom.  By using the technique of “doxing,” using sources on the Internet to trace someone and gather information about them, Ms. Goodman outed Mr. Nakomoto.

Goodman’s story set off a firestorm.  Criticized by many for how she obtained her evidence, followed by her decision to out Satoshi Nakamoto, her journalistic integrity is being questioned publicly. Many people believe that the accused is not Bitcoin’s founder, and feel that Goodman put Nakamoto at risk – in her rush to “break” the story. He has since granted an interview with Associated Press both denying Goodman’s allegations and any affiliation with Bitcoin.

Bitcoin, a digital currency that was developed in response to a basic mistrust and lack of confidence in the U.S. dollar, has many powerful forces allied against it. These interests include, but are not limited to, the U.S. government, Federal Reserve, and U.S. banking industry.  Arguable, these parties are waging a propaganda war to discredit Bitcoin as an alternative to the U.S. dollar--for example, linking Bitcoin’s use to drug money and money laundering.  A simple Google search on the term “Bitcoin money laundering” yields over 2 million hits.

Bitcoin, like other commodities and currencies, has wild price fluctuations, and as an immature currency is volatile.  Some eager investors who bet on the currency, hoping to make a quick buck, instead netted financial losses. The founder of Bitcoin should not be accountable for Bitcoin investment losses – nor should they be put in a position of vulnerability with photos of their house, as Goodman offered as an exhibit.

Despite a public backlash to her story, Goodman is adamant that she has identified the right person.  She claims her story is a culmination of 2 months of work in following leads and gathering facts. So where does one draw the line between investigative journalism and tracking down someone who has gone to great lengths to protect their anonymity because they might value privacy?

  • Was Leah Goodman’s dogged pursuit to uncover the identity of Bitcoin’s architect done out of a desire to satisfy the public interest ‘need to know’ or a result of her ambition to be the “first” to break this story?
  • One of the first obligations of a journalist is to keep the larger public interest in mind when reporting on a story.  Prior to Goodman’s Newsweek account, the identity of Bitcoin’s founder had been shrouded in mystery. Does knowing their name, what they look like, and seeing photos of someone’s house, serve the public’s best interest and “need to know”?  Does making a person vulnerable or protecting their safety matter?
  • Under false pretenses, Goodman contacted Nakamoto and started a dialogue about their mutual interest in model trains. Did she cross the line between covering the story and stepping beyond journalistic conventions here as well?
  • When is it ok to manipulate, overlook or even break the rules of reporting?
  • Courts often redefine what is private based upon interpretations of the legal term “reasonable expectation of privacy.”  Did Goodman violate Nakamoto’s privacy by publicizing the small town and pictures of his home, or was she just following journalistic protocol to discover his identity?  If yes, should she in any way be held accountable if this knowledge results in harm to Mr. Nakamoto (by estimation he is a Bitcoin-based multi-millionaire).

While some say that Leah Goodman’s outing of Satoshi Nakamoto is brilliant journalism, others question her ethics.  What is not in question is the controversy that this story has created.  Here’s the infamous Newsweek article.  You decide.