Public & Private

I have ended up spending more time than I was expecting over that last few months struggling to figure out where I stand on how much of ones life should be public versus private. I’ve found myself being more private over the last year, somewhat to my dismay, and yet have felt increasingly uncomfortable being more open or publicizing fully what I’m working on. I think more than ever before I foresee my decisions forcing me down a more polarized path than I’ve previously realized.

And yet, the topic that I’ve been privately working on is exactly this issue – building systems for public communication. The core of the issue boils down to the fear that public association with anonymity and privacy issues will lead to increased surveillance and travel restrictions. At the same time, a more fatalistic voice says that I am already easily linked with privacy issues through my digital footprint, and as such I am failing to promote my work without protecting myself from retribution. As such, I am a knowing participant in the “chilling effects” of surveillance, taking fears of travel restrictions and life disruptions as motivations against talking more about privacy and censorship.

This unsettling association around the effects of working on privacy is seemingly pervasive. One indicator is how quickly we attempt to distance ourselves from the vocabulary. Research doesn’t attempt to circumvent censorship, but rather uses “adversary-resilient” protocols to handle “network interference.” I feel like I have unconsciously compensated by working on Code for Seattle, a great, uncontroversial, project supporting civic tech and my local community. Academic papers measuring the behavior of the Internet have been published anonymously presumably due to similar discomfort to what I feel.

My path so far has led me to a ridge that is now falling off precipitously on both sides. To one side is public advocacy of circumvention systems. Down that side are the realizations of the fears above, difficulty traveling, difficulty presenting myself as unbiased, and general polarization. This seems hugely unfortunate: I bear no particular ill will towards the countries I’ve been to, and would love to continue having the ability to travel and define who I am. To the other side is the lure of anonymity, starting over and creating a second identity for sensitive work distanced from ‘me’. Unfortunately, while the lure seems appealing, I believe it is also unachievable. I have seen only a single instance of a ‘successful’ anonymous online persona: that of satoshi, the bitcoin creator.

And so what is left is to continue balancing on that ridge while embracing a diversity of projects so that I can’t be easily labeled. I’m still heading the same direction I set in college and have used to navigate through graduate school: My goal is to make the Internet better.