Buzzfeed’s Bored Ape NFT dox: Crypto risk or journalistic integrity?

Experts weigh in on the value of anonymity as the identities of more and more pseudonymous crypto personalities are revealed.

Individuals using pseudonymous identities to protect their privacy have been an integral part of the crypto sector since the beginning; however, with the market having matured significantly since the early days, the question of whether these practices are still morally sound has once again come to the forefront, particularly in relation to projects that have achieved a certain amount of mainstream clout.

In this regard, the identities of two of Bored Ape Yacht Club’s (BAYC) four founders — “Gordon Goner” and “Gargamel” — as Greg Solano and Wylie Aronow were recently revealed by the American media and entertainment firm Buzzfeed.

To elaborate, journalist Kate Notopoulos recently published an article titled We Found The Real Names Of Bored Ape Yacht Club’s Pseudonymous Founders in which she discovered the pair’s identities by searching publicly available records associated with Yuga Labs, the company behind the collection. Yuga was incorporated in Delaware with an address associated with Solano, while other records indicate that Aronow is the owner.

On the same day as the announcement, Yuga Labs revealed that its NFT collection was in talks for funding with a16z, one of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms, with the firm valuing the entire collection at a hefty $5 billion.

Following the “doxing” — an informal term for the publication of private information about a specific individual on the internet — both Solano and Aronow took to Twitter to emphasise the importance of individual privacy, particularly in the context of Web3 vs. Web2.

Is doxing ever moral?

According to Notopoulos, when a company as large as BAYC — that is, one that attracts billions of dollars annually — operates on a global scale, it is critical that the company’s founders or CEO use their real name rather than a pseudonym, adding:

“There are reasons why, in the traditional business world, a company’s CEO or founder uses their real name rather than a pseudonym. “How can you hold them accountable if you don’t even know who they are?”

To bolster her case, she stated that executives associated with publicly traded companies in the United States are required by the Securities and Exchange Commission to complete a variety of disclosures and reports, whereas smaller firms are subject to strict banking regulations as well as Know Your Customer laws that require all executives to use their full names.

However, the apparent “non-consensual exposure” of BAYC’s founders has brought a number of criticisms to the forefront, particularly from those operating within the burgeoning Web3 ecosystem. For example, prominent crypto podcaster Colbie referred to the article as journalistic “trash” designed solely to garner clicks, with Messari founder Ryan Selkis echoing a similar sentiment.

Despite the backlash, Notopoulos appeared unfazed, claiming that she did what she needed to do from both an ethical and a journalistic standpoint.

The experts are split

According to Giselle Nagle, operations head for PhotoChromic, a blockchain-based digital identity protocol, the issue of identity protection is highly complex/multifaceted and notoriously difficult to solve, adding:

“To summarise, your identity is divided into two parts: personal and public. When sensitive information is being exchanged, pseudonymous identity works best when you need to trust that the person behind the identity is who they say they are. In both cases, however, the individual should have complete control over whether or not to reveal their identity.”

She went on to say that a person’s identity is their most valuable asset, and that it is critical that everyone, especially those working in the field of digital technology, understand how to put safeguards in place to protect their data. “For the first time since the internet’s inception, we are beginning to see the pieces of the puzzle come together to unlock the enormous potential of a holistic view of your own identity,” Nagle observed.

Similarly, Jaya Klara Brekke, chief strategy officer at privacy tech startup Nym Technologies, said in an interview that Buzzfeed’s aforementioned move was extremely shady, and that as a result, stronger privacy protections are becoming increasingly important — especially as the industry matures.

Individual pseudonyms, according to Brekke, are no longer sufficient, and with tools allowing for the analysis of public ledgers, traffic, and metadata now easily available on the open market, privacy issues are becoming more problematic. She stated:

“We’re on our way to a bigger privacy problem than we’ve ever had.” This, in turn, feeds discriminatory profiling and identity systems, preventing open access to technological resources. We require technology that is neutral, open, and accessible to all.”

Lior Lamesh, co-founder and CEO of GK8, a cybersecurity fin-tech, expressed a somewhat opposing viewpoint, said that blockchain, by definition, is private, and that as long as the organisation running a blockchain initiative can govern its operations in accordance with the law of the land, it has the right to keep the identities of its users and stakeholders private.

Lamesh also stated that journalists are truth-seekers by nature and thus have the right to do their jobs, and that revealing the identities of BAYC’s founders was fine in this case:

“This should not be taken as cause for concern.” What can now be said is that these digital arts will almost certainly not be used as a conduit for money laundering because the BAYC team will implement new data security methods. So, in terms of a chance to do the right thing, the Buzzfeed journalist’s move isn’t out of place.”

The doxing trend may gain traction in the future

It’s worth noting that Solano and Aronow aren’t the first big names in the crypto space to be publicly outed this year; earlier in 2022, “0xSifu,” the pseudonymous treasury manager for the controversial Avalanche-based protocol Wonderland Money, was revealed to be Michael Patryn, a former convict and co-founder of the now-defunct cryptocurrency exchange QuadrigaCX.

Patryn’s criminal history first made headlines in the global crypto landscape in 2019, when QuadrigaCX’s operator Gerald Cotten — who was working closely with Patryn — died under mysterious circumstances, taking $169 million in investor crypto with him.

Following the scandal, it was revealed that Patryn’s real name was Omar Dhanani, an indicted criminal who spent more than a decade and a half in a U.S. federal prison on identity theft charges. Following his release, Dhanani changed his name to Michael Patryn and became involved in the cryptocurrency space, founding QuadrigaCX and, most recently, joining the Wonderland team.

As we move forward into a future in which crypto companies become more widely accepted, it will be interesting to see how long the pseudonymous operators of various platforms will be able to keep their identities hidden.

Disclaimer: These are the writer’s opinions and should not be considered investment advice. Readers should do their own research.

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