Thoughts on the Outing of the NYU Secrets Admin

Background: NYU has two main newspapers — the print Washington Square News and the digital NYU Local. NYU Secrets is a Facebook page where anonymous “secret” updates were posted, written by members of the NYU community. The page is curated by an anonymous administrator, and given that NYU is a decentralized, campus-less university, the NYU Secrets page did serve as something of a community.

Today NYU Local This Is The Man Behind NYU Secrets:

The founder and administrator of NYU Secrets is senior Aristotelis “Aristo” Orginos. A frequent Redditor, Orginos also participates in the Men’s Rights movement.
[...]
Outside his duties as administrator, Orignos posts in the Reddit group r/mensrights. The men’s rights movement argues that men are oppressed and disadvantaged by women, a view that lends itself to bitter misogyny in some circles and has led the Southern Poverty Law Center to describe the movement as a hate group.

The discussion that the NYU Local article prompted has centered on two main areas: whether the admin being an MRA makes him a bad fit for NYUS admin, and whether or not the journalist had any right to out his identity. I’m more interested in the latter question, because it has to do with journalism ethics.

The NYU Secrets page, which has 30,000 likes, is a public page. The identity of the admin, who periodically would comment on secrets and make announcements, was of much interest and debate. To my knowledge, the page isn’t sanctioned by NYU but the administration has been known to follow the page and look into particular secrets. Considering that the topic of cheating on finals comes up, this doesn’t surprise me.

But the NYUS admin has no fundamental right to privacy. Whether or not his identity remained a secret seemed largely contingent on how good his operating security was. I’m sure I’m not the only one who did some digging to find his identity and satisfy my curiosity. It’s the classic game of cat-and-mouse — the admin wanted to remain anonymous, the NYU Local journalist wanted to find out his identity. Hackers and infosec types play these sorts of games all the time.

The NYU Secrets guy has no fundamental right to keep his identity anonymous. The journalist owes him nothing, and certainly has no responsibility not to publish. Questions of whether or not the journalist should have done it is a totally different question, but even there I’m leaning towards the school of thought that says, hey, they had a good story and they’re rightfully getting attention for it.

In debating this on Facebook the afternoon, I was asked why I held the above views considering I’m so privacy-conscious. Of course people don’t have a fundamental right to privacy — it’d be a different question if the journalist posted the contents of the admin’s e-mails, or his medical records. Those are details the NYU Secrets guy, since he’s a private citizen, does have a fundamental right to keep private.

To briefly touch on whether a supporter of such an odious movement deserves to edit a page famed for diversity and inclusion, I largely agree with the NYU Local journalist:

“But the fundamental problem with a college secrets page remains the same: in filtering the voices of a diverse student population through a single anonymous administrator, the results are necessarily limited by what that anonymous administrator (in this case, a white man) chooses to publish. We’re drawn in by the illusion of vox populi, the voice of the people, when in fact what we see is “10-20%” of that voice, as curated by one person with their own biases — intentional or not.”

Open Information

August 16, 2014
New York, NY.

Recently, two friends separately suggested I get in contact with Jonathan Stray, a journalist and computer scientist currently teaching at Columbia. In reading up about him, I came across this post from November 2011 on a digital system of communication and collective knowledge.

I found it interesting mostly because one of the things I want to do this semester is think more deeply about the opinions and beliefs I hold, figure out why I hold them. In the activist/crypto circles I’ve started moving in, it’s sometimes easy to get lost in the echo chamber of what I call the “fuck the police” mentality. If I hold beliefs strongly, I want to be able to give them depth and defend them.

This piece from Jonathan Stray is a good, nuanced look at how technology can enhance collective knowledge (I still can’t talk about digitized collective knowledge without thinking of Douglas Adams, though):

Taking inspiration from Michael Schudson’s essay “Six or seven things that news can do for democracy,” I want to ask what the digital public sphere can do for us. I think I see three broad categories, which are also three goals to keep in mind as we build our institutions and systems.

1. Information. It should be possible for people to find things out, whatever they want to know. Our institutions should help people organize to produce valuable new knowledge. And important information should automatically reach each person at just the right moment.

2. Empathy. The vast majority of people in the world, we will only know through media. We must strive to represent the “other” to each-other with compassion and reality. We can’t forget that there are people on the other end of the wire.

3. Collective action. What good is public deliberation if we can’t eventually come to a decision and act? But truly enabling the formation of broad agreement also requires that our information systems support conflict resolution. In this age of complex overlapping communities, this role spans everything from the local to the global.

PGP + E-mail Signature

A few days ago, free software enthusiast and EFF activist Parker Higgins blogged his thoughts on how to make e-mail encryption more ubiquitous. PGP has a lot of faults, but I agree in large part with what he’s trying to achieve: putting your PGP fingerprint in your e-mail signature.

This system isn’t perfect, and in particular is not a very secure way to distribute your fingerprint. But it could be a good nudge to people who might be considering learning about email encryption while flagging you as somebody who might be able to help, and especially if you post to publicly archived mailing lists, it’s a way of getting your fingerprint tied to your emails in lots of places.

I went ahead and implemented it for my e-mail signature, in the hope that going forward, somebody who wants to know more about encryption will see my signature and reach out to me. That isn’t to say that this is anywhere near a perfect solution (how is a series of letters and numbers a “fingerprint”?) but I believe it’s the best we currently have.

What’s Next

Greenwich Village,
August 12, 2014.

Happy to report that I’m back in NYC for the fall semester. I had a lot of fun in SF this summer, but ultimately I think that New York’s where I’m starting to carve out a life for myself. The city feels alive in a way that San Francisco hasn’t yet managed, even in the Mission district. Maybe it’s the more ubiquitous subway, or maybe it’s because New York lives life at 1.5x.

This semester looks like it’s gearing up to be a good one — three media classes (one on privacy, one on propaganda and war, and one introduction to journalism) and one history of mathematics. I’m taking that last one to fulfill requirements, but getting better at math is something that’s been on my bucket list for a while. As with last semester though, I think the most memorable and noteworthy events are going to happen off my timetable. I’m not going to jinx anything by talking about it before it’s confirmed, but a couple interesting people in the civil liberties/digital rights/open government spheres may well be speaking at NYU next year.

In terms of figuring out what interests me, this summer was fantastic. I got to spend time with people working on great projects, tinker on some new ideas, and perhaps most importantly, attend the Hackers on Planet Earth conference. In particular, the HOPE conference was great because of its intersectionality: hackers, journalists, activists and lawyers all rubbed shoulders for three days. I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I’m starting to get the idea that it’ll involve these groups. When you’re 20, it’s hard to see what you’re supposed to be doing, so I’ve been working on positioning myself near cool people doing cool things. “Cool” is a word I choose in part because it’s hard to define — I only have a vague idea of what I want to do, so zeroing in on the stuff that piques my curiosity seems to be a decent start.

Last week, I was asked to speak at a fundraiser for Gillette Children’s hospital, where I had treatment a handful of times while growing up (more info: On Giants). As I talked about how my first year of college had been such a positive experience in part thanks to the surgeries, I realized that a lot has changed since I first wrote Consider This, a series of essays I wrote in August 2012 about growing up with a physical disability. With that in mind, my current project is to write and publish a follow-up essay of sorts, given that, since then, I graduated high school and finished my freshman year at college in America, 3,000 miles away from where I’d grown up.

I don’t have many specific details decided yet, but my tentative timeline is to have this published by the end of September. As always, I’ll update this blog with news.

Accuracy

So is the Times‘ apparent shift good news? In one sense, it certainly is. Reporting that uses plain language to describe government abuses is better than reporting that does not. But the fact remains that it took the paper a decade to come to this conclusion, and the Times appears to have done so only after they were reassured that the torturers will not face justice.
NY Times and Torture: A Decade Too Late?

I recently subscribed to a bunch of new media accuracy blogs, and one of the best ones is Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (fair.org). For the most part, they’re nonpartisan and balanced — which is good not because balance is always right, but because partisan blogs tend to include ad hominem attacks and lean on clichés.

As I said to someone recently, I think I’m more of an open access/open government advocate than an anti-surveillance activist. As much as I think SecureDrop could be one of the most important tools of the decade, I think it’s important because the government knows too much about us without oversight or much information in return: congresspeople can anonymously prevent a motion from reaching the stage of a Senate vote, and CIA director John Brennan lied to the public and the Senate. I think governmental accountability is imperative in a democracy, and I think organizations like Sunlight Foundation (and, yes, Wikileaks) are using technology in hugely important ways to provide some measure of accountability.

On Giants

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
—Isaac Newton

Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
August 4, 2014

The disability community as a whole is fond of quotes. We draw inspiration and empathy from them, but I’m wary that quotes and clichés are approximations and nothing can substitute the authentic voices of the community. (This is why I write so much.)

But as I stood talking to my surgeon after a fundraiser for Gillette Children’s hospital in St. Paul (the hospital where I had treatments detailed in Consider This), the Newton quote seemed fitting.

When I describe my disability and the surgeons, some people are quick to tell me how brave I must be to go through all that. Really, I’m nothing special — it’s the surgeons, the nurses, and the support staff at hospitals like Gillette who are among the few people I call heroes.

Every kid has hopes and dreams, and those born with disabilities are no different. Every kid also has difficulties (physical, mental, or socioeconomic) which make realizing those dreams difficult.

The people who work at facilities like Gillette Children’s are the people whose job it is to break down the physical barriers some kids have — to work with the child to give them as much of a chance as any able-bodied, neuro-typical kid has.

I spoke for a few minutes at the fundraiser, describing how having surgeries which kept me walking independently afforded me the confidence to act in shows, to come to college in the US, and to tinker on projects like the Student Net Alliance. Treatment at Gillette didn’t make my disability disappear, but it reduced its impact on my life such that I could focus on what I cared about.

It’s a mistake to say that I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone at Gillette — not because of how I feel towards those people, but because a “debt” is something that you stand a chance of repaying someday. Because of them, my life’s been changed for good.

So if I’m brave or exceptional, it’s only because I’m surrounded by giants who gave me and others a leg up.