Saturday, August 22, 2015

on the Ashley Madison hack, information disclosure and ethics in watchblogging

But while it’s impossible to know exactly why so many signed up for Ashley Madison accounts—with their work emails, no less—one can imagine that there was an extent to which the website’s mere existence, its promise of a sheltering and complicit community, soothed many consciences.

Because that’s what Ashley Madison did: it organized and fostered a community around cheating. We speak of the importance of private associations, their ability to inculcate habits of virtue. But here, we see the opposite: we see an association fostering and even facilitating vice. And this is the dark side of community that we forget about: we forget that peer support and approval will motivate us to do things we may otherwise have avoided—or at least felt guilty about.

For numerous, obvious reasons, the fact that someone’s name appears in the Ashley Madison database does not mean they have engaged in marital infidelity. To begin with, it is easy to enter someone else’s name and email address, as happened to The Intercept’s Farai Chideya. [emphasis added] Beyond that, there are all sorts of reasons someone may use this website without having cheated on their spouse. Some may use the site as pornography because it titillates them, or because they are tempted to cheat but are resisting the urge, or because they’re married but in a relationship where monogamy is not demanded, or because they’re researchers or journalists observing this precinct of online interaction, or countless other reasons. This permanent, highly public shaming of these “adulterers” is not only puritanical but reckless in the extreme, since many who end up branded with the scarlet “A” may have done absolutely nothing wrong.

So ... let's just assume everybody knows about the Ashley Madison hack and the basics of what just happened.

Wenatchee The Hatchet is not particularly pleased.  There's no reason to talk about poetic justice for cheating men who cheat on their wives and it's not because they're cheating on their wives, though that's no good.

No, the problem is that cheering the hack suggests we might want to consider what standards we have about information disclosure.  When and why do we consider info-dumping of information that was intended to be kept private to be a heroic act?  When and why do we consider info-dumping of information that was meant to be secret despicable?

It's not always clear that we, as a society, exactly know or care.

By now it would be difficult to escape the idea that the only thing Wenatchee The Hatchet is known for is as some kind of watchdog blog.  It's lame to have been so thoroughly typecast but so it goes.

Give or take some scholarly debates about provenance and textual transmission, the story of how David arranged for the death of Uriah the Hittite in battle can be described as a biblical story in which we have been given, so to speak, to a "hack".

Jacob Wright touches on this aspect of the biblical narrative in his book David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory. He states that the correspondence is most likely a literary license taken by the authors whose work became part of the canonical narrative.  However, for the point of this blog post, it suffices to say that a "leak" or "hack" of royal correspondence made it into a biblical text. Even the staunchest unbeliever will easily appreciate why that literary/historical "hack" happened, nobody in any age, even the most patriarchal bronze age around, thought there was anything remotely ethical or civilized or appropriate about a regional warlord using royal status with the gloss of divine endorsement as a thing to be used to arrange for the death of a loyal soldier to ensure that the sexual use of the soldier's wife was not discovered. 

As a lengthy aside, there are several things about David's conspiracy against Uriah the Hittite that evangelicals seem to perpetually overlook. The first and most basic one is that had David not already engaged in war against the Ammonites he would not have sent people off to war while staying home. Jacob Wright laid out an interesting and persuasive case that this war, being the first war that was undertaken by David not for the benefit of Israel but from a personal sense of honor, the biblical author(s) may imply that David was already on morally shaky ground in what he was using royal power and resources for and why even before he spotted Bathsheba one fateful day.

Secondly, when Nathan confronts David about the murder he doesn't condemn David's polygamy. Had the wives not been enough, Nathan explained, God would have provided more.  Contemporary evangelical commentary to the effect that David was an adulterer misses the boat if it goes beyond Bathsheba, unless Abigail counts on the presumption that David murdered Nabal (which seems to be where Joel Baden has gone on the matter but this blog post isn't about his book).

Third, although in a number of places in the canon Gad the seer gets described as David's personal seer there's no sign of Gad in the narrative where Nathan appears (Nathan will later appear in Kings as a lobbyist for Solomon, more or less, opening up the possibility that today's principled prophet can still end up next year's mercenary backdoor schemer even if the cause is a nominally correct one). Speculative as this theory is, it seems that Nathan felt obliged to speak up and confront David for his crimes because Gad, the king's official prophet, was nowhere to be found. Either the prophet was not around to begin with or Gad was around and potentially looked the other way or didn't know what had happened because David's secrecy was solid.

So even in the Bible, we could say, there's a precedent for a "hack" in which correspondence meant to be secret not only sees the light of day but literally ends up as part of a canonized document.

So that might read as if it were a defense of a hack for those readers who haven't yet read between the lines.

This is not a defense of hacks or leaks.  How does this connect to the title that mentions watchblogging?

We're just getting to that.

The vast majority of material published here about the history of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill was stuff that was published in social and broadcast media in various ways over the course of sixteen years.  Yes, including all the William Wallace II stuff. Hacking was never used, it was never necessary.  People sent stuff along and for many years Wenatchee The Hatchet was simply given a ton of content or had access to a ton of content by virtue of being a member of Mars Hill and an occasional ministry volunteer.  It was just a matter of the providence of keeping stuff rather than deleting it, and then other stuff got volunteered.

There's a substantial and obvious difference between people voluntarily sending potentially sensitive information and finding mountains of information has been dumped onto social and broadcast media by the parties themselves, and recent hacks. Like it or not Mars Hill leaders have had to face the reality that even if the Result Source deal had not been leaked to World Magazine there was a super-majority of content already made available to the public at large by Mars Hill itself.  When the plagiarism controversy erupted it was only possible precisely because the published works of Mark Driscoll were mass market products.  Wenatchee The Hatchet didn't get any of the RSI stuff.

So what about all those years of leaks from The City?  Stuff was sent.  Simple as that. People trusted Wenatchee The Hatchet with insider communication. So when Driscoll was claiming Mars Hill was somehow not a wealthy church in spite of a roughly $30 million dollar annual budget, people who were still part of the Mars Hill community at some level conveyed this absurd assertion on the part of Mark Driscoll via The City to Wenatchee The Hatchet. The same went for the resignations of Bill Clem and a number of other Mars Hill staff.  Some of the staff transitions were easy to document simply because names started vanishing from the websites.

Back when Wenatchee The Hatchet was a young journalism student one of the bits of advice WtH received was to avoid relying on anonymous sources.  You can't be sure they aren't lying, you can't be sure they haven't gotten the cold shoulder because of their own ethical lapses that may have gotten them fired from a job.  The risks of someone opting to become a source out of retaliation can be too high.  And in many cases what you think you may need a secret source for you don't need that secret source for; a remarkable amount of stuff is sitting in plain sight if you're just patient enough to look in the right places.

Take the million-dollar house in Woodway the Driscolls bought during the "season" when non-negotiable layoffs were happening.  That real estate was found in a roughly ten-second online search based on a select pile of informational statements that led directly to county real estate records.  Wenatchee The Hatchet found that stuff quickly but without setting out to find that stuff, not specifically.  There may still be those out there who think it was terrible Wenatchee The Hatchet found information that's been a matter of public record for years on county websites but it's tough to sty angry at the vicissitudes of providence.  And because that Woodway house purchase is a matter of public record it raised a simple and blunt question, how does a megachurch pastor afford to buy a million-dollar piece of real estate in Woodway, Washington?  If Mars Hill was not a wealthy church where were the Driscoll's getting the money to buy a house in Woodway? 

What was publicly available naturally led to questions about what was not disclosed.  You can't just go buying real estate that expensive if you can't afford it and if you can afford it how affordable is it?

Sources over the years indicated that one of the biggest and most opaque mysteries within Mars Hill was how much Driscoll got paid and how he got paid.  Within the culture of Mars Hill this was one of those mysteries that couldn't be worked out. Gone were the days were the books at Mars Hill were open for anybody to go read.

Now Mark Driscoll and the leaders of Mars Hill had spent years telling the members sand lower level staff to keep sacrificing and keep giving.  They also conveyed that in tough seasons some people had to be let go and that this was part of the mission.  The sheer number of people cut loose in the 2011-2013 period was given witness by the BoAA when it mentioned more than 100 people got transitioned off staff at Mars Hill in that fateful two-year stretch.  It wasn't just that Mark Driscoll and the leadership culture kept urging sacrificial giving, they kept doing so in a corporate culture in which layoffs were legion and the leaders were increasingly evasive about what compensation the top dogs got.

Meanwhile, Driscoll's public career kept picking up steam.  In 2012 he was confident enough to go on a pre-emptive character attack adventure against Justin Brierley.  Driscoll evaded any controversy that didn't make his personality front and center, so he never said a word on record about the disciplinary case involving Andrew Lamb.  Driscoll was so busy promoting Real Marriage in early 2012 some one-time disciplinary case involving some young horny dude at the Ballard campus wasn't worth thinking about, perhaps. Besides, there was that meet-and-greet with T. D. Jakes to look forward to, not that you'll see a whole ton of reference to that even from Driscoll these days. 

For those at Mars Hill who saw the progression Mark Driscoll made from denouncing preachers like Jakes in 2007 to shaking hands with Jakes in 2011; for those who saw how the finances became more opaque even as the requests to sacrifice stayed strong; a few people here and there across a variety of campuses began to share stuff with Wenatchee The Hatchet.  Wenatchee The Hatchet also took the time to document real estate acquisitions and subsequent leadership appointments. 

Wenatchee had no idea that such a thing as Result Source existed.  For years it seemed probable there was some remarkably lazy attribution and sourcing in Driscoll books.  The plagiarism scandal seemed like a high probability but it wasn't until Wenatchee read Real Marriage that it became clear such a scandal was likely to occur.

Mark Driscoll ruefully explained via video last year, that because of the kind of celebrity he had attained he did not have the same kinds of standards from which to plead a point for privacy as other individuals.  That's soft-pedaling it, still, because Mark Driscoll spent decades questing for a level of celebrity that made him a public figure and a public moralist to boot.

So when Driscoll ever sounded off on the wrongness of people plagiarizing the works of others in sermons or books it became a matter of public record and a matter of public service to document any applicable cases in which Mark Driscoll may have not only failed to live up to the standards he judged others by, but flagrantly contradicted the ideals he said people should live by. It's important to keep in mind just what a mind-bending amount of content Team Driscoll and Mars Hill put out there over the years. 

So it mattered a great deal that in Real Marriage it turned out the Driscolls did not acknowledge the work and influence of Dan Allender in the first print edition. Even if somebody were to reject the legitimacy of copyright and intellectual property (which some Christians do) the point is not lost, it's still hypocritical for the leadership of Mars Hill to have lamented in late 2011 in the wake of a trademark and logo scandal that some people copied Mars Hill content without attribution when it would turn out a great deal of Mark Driscoll's published work turned out to have made use of the ideas of others without adequate attribution.  For the folks who don't remember the Mars Hill 2011 trademark/logo scandal ...
Sadly, in addition to giving things away, we’ve also had things taken. We’ve had churches cut and paste our logo, take our website code and copy it completely, had ministry leaders cut and paste documents of ours, put their name on them to then post online as if it were their content, and even seen other pastors fired for preaching our sermons verbatim.

We’re not the only church called Mars Hill, and occasionally there arises confusion between us and other churches that share the “Mars Hill” name, particularly as we now have our churches in four states. This was the case recently when one of our members called us to find out if we had planted Mars Hill churches in the Sacramento, California area. We had not, but when we went to these churches’ websites, it was obvious to us how people could be confused. Each of these three connected churches in the Sacramento region—planted in 2006, 2007, and 2010—bore the “Mars Hill” name and their logo was substantially similar to the logo we’ve used since 1996.

When cases like this arise in the business world, it’s customary for a law office to send a notice asking the other organization to adjust their branding to differentiate it. This is commonly referred to as a cease and desist letter. On September 27, 2011, our legal counsel sent such a letter to these three Mars Hill churches requesting that they change their logo and name. In hindsight, we realize now that the way we went about raising our concerns, while acceptable in the business world, is not the way we should deal with fellow Christians. On Friday we spoke with the pastor of Mars Hill in Sacramento to apologize for the way we went about this. We had a very productive conversation and look forward to continuing that conversation in the days and weeks ahead.

It didn't matter if a person rejected the idea of intellectual property in this case, the flagrant hypocrisy alone was damning.  If you complain in public that other people crib your stuff you better make sure you're not guilty of doing the same thing. There was a time when Mars Hill leaders said copyright was outmoded and not the way of the future.  There could be some story about how THAT changed but that's not the point of this already sprawling post.

By the time Janet Mefferd confronted Driscoll on air about plagiarism Mark Driscoll and the leaders of Mars Hill had already established Driscoll as a public figure willing to sound off on how bad it was that people cribbed from his sermons.  That turned out to not be the only problematic thing about Driscoll's published work.

It mattered that Mark Driscoll said from the pulpit in 2000-2001 that guys shouldn't cheat, they shouldn't take the shortcut to getting what they want because a decade later when Mars Hill contracted with Result Source to rig a #1 spot for Mark Driscoll on the NYT that revealed that the Mark Driscoll who told guys to not take the shortcut to their goals was willing to take a shortcut.  If your book didn't make it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list without a little help did it deserve to be there? 

Whoever leaked the Result Source contract to the press was leaking something that had been hidden not only from the public but from a probable majority of Mars Hill members and even leaders.

That was information that needed to be made known.  Why?  Because it didn't just open up for public discussion that Mars Hill arranged to rig the New York Time bestseller list to promote a book that turned out to have "citation errors" in it, it revealed that this scheme was employed by other Christian authors within the Christian publishing scene.  The company that has done this was already a matter of news, however. 

Leaks of sensitive information to the press, formal or informal, aren't like hacking.  A history of leaked content dealing with public figures occupies a different ethical space than a hack.  A hack cannot, as Greenwald has noted, account for the reality that many people who would use Ashley Madison might never use their real names or contact information.

Information is the foundation of our entire economic system.  We use fiat currency.  Sure, we have paper and metal money but in the normal business day goods and services can be exchanged with a series of 0's and 1's. Who you even are, in this economic system, is a sequence of information.  You're flesh and blood, too, of course, but that's not how you are mediated in an information economy. 

Why is it that people who might object to NSA surveillance might have no problem with the hack? Why is a lack of informed consent a prerequisite people care about in one case but potentially not in another?  If information wants to be free then why wouldn't the NSA have every ground to keep up a surveillance program?  It's not like the military and the industries of national defense didn't, you know, kind of invent the internet.

Hacking or not, when you have access to information that can potentially permanently destroy the livelihood of someone you have to weigh the significance of whether it is worth it to disclose that information.  In the history of blogging about Mars Hill there are occasionally folks who seem to think any and every form of hardball is acceptable. The Ashley Madison hack has opened up the floodgates to a process that will destroy the lives of people who are not public figures or who are not public figures in any sense that could even theoretically merit the disclosure of the information.  That Duggar guy was already in the crosshairs for other things besides what has lately been reported about his name appearing in a list of hacked names.  Even assuming that email/contact information is connected to a real Duggar (and that should not be assumed, per Greenwald's recent writing) the disclosure of the information in itself was not exactly "necessary".

Over the years Wenatchee The Hatchet has repeatedly deleted occasional comments from former Mars Hill attenders with axes to grind against some former employees of Mars Hill. Some allegations were occasionally made that, if they had substance behind them, would be better transformed into actual litigation than some kind of passionate cyber-justice.  A watchblog can preserve for the public record information that has, for the most part, been a matter of public record already.  In exceptional cases information disclosed to thousands of insiders in an organization has been disclosed for public benefit--when you see how cordoned off the Mars Hill campuses were from each other disclosing resignations with leaked City content was a way to disclose what communication to a thousand or more people was, but the eventual and inevitable disappearance of the names from the public roster was happening anyway. 

But Wenatchee The Hatchet has not disclosed everything discovered over the course of five or six years of blogging about Mars Hill.  If "that" were done some people would never be able to move past things that happened to them while they were at Mars Hill.  Although there is no right in America "to be forgotten" there's such a thing as pity and compassion.  The majority of people, even in the leadership culture of what is the dissolving Mars Hill, don't qualify as public figures.  Let's be clear here, Mark Driscoll's arrogance and incompetence brought him down.  He destroyed his own reputation through the way he spoke and published in the public sphere.  There's not much reason to feel bad for him.  Other people who got fired and laid off were not public figures seeking the spotlight.

You have to assess whether the story warrants permanently damaging someone's ability to work in a given field before you run with something.  In the case of a Mark Driscoll, who has at length betrayed so many of the doctrinal and ethical norms he spent decades espousing from the pulpit, that seems clearcut to Wenatchee The Hatchet. The sheer number of points at which Mark Driscoll's conduct has by now contradicted the precepts he espoused as a public figure precludes his legitimacy in ministry as far as Wenatchee The Hatchet is concerned.  It doesn't mean the guy isn't a professing Christian, it just means that, dude, the guy destroyed his own credibility to a point where it can't be repaired.  Now Mark Driscoll has to live with the reality that one day his kids could stumble upon William Wallace II rants and because Mark Driscoll spent decades telling young guys, yelling at them, to think of their legacy and live accordingly, that's something Driscoll has to live with.  He has to live with the reality that in 2008 he compared having womens' ministry to the prospect of juggling knives.
Whatever different feelings he has now compared to 2000, as he told Brian Houston earlier this year, the substance of what Driscoll has said remains. 

There's a world of difference between preserving what Mark Driscoll dumped onto social and broadcast media for his entire public career and a hack. The differences are obvious but people who cheerlead the results of the hack may not be thinking through the implications of those differences.  The ethics of information access and distribution are always going to be issues. The difficulties raised by our technology having evolved faster than our applicable laws has meant that, for instance, we dn't actually have applicable laws about how to deal with data leaks in a way that's always clear.  This year there's the Ashley Madison hack but a while back there were the nude leaks of celebrities, some of whom took to using intellectual property law as a basis for taking legal action against content that was never intended to be formally published.

If this were just a matter of who doesn't want what published it wouldn't remain simple because our entire economy is based on information. Our identities in this economic system are the information about us. It's possible to buy and sell that information without our knowledge or consent in some cases.  Even if you've never logged onto the internet a single day in your life in the United States that doesn't mean basic information about you isn't on the internet.  It doesn't mean a person couldn't, with the right price or the right effort, find out things about you. For those who have fretted about the NSA, worry not, you may have voluntarily dumped more information about yourself through technology use than the NSA would ever even care to know.  There's a case to be made that if you're going to be online at all you shouldn't be doing anything you wouldn't be willing to have a matter of public knowledge but that's pretty clearly not how things work.  People pay their bills online, should the water bill for your home be a matter of public record?  Isn't it already, some might suggest.  If "information wants to be free" which information are we really talking about? Social security numbers?  If you have children and they have medical conditions how many people need to know about that?  Everyone?  Does that information want to be free?

It's not as though there don't come times when things that have been concealed are shouted from rooftops.  The golden rule doesn't become irrelevant in cases like this does it?  What about yourself would you be willing to have disclosed, even at the point of ruining your life, would you condone someone else disclosing about you if it were for some greater good?  Reputation is a zero-sum game, you have a good one or a bad one.  What's worth destroying a person's reputation for?  In a day as ostensibly individualistic as ours it's remarkable how much we have retained a notion of class-based guilt. Not that you asked, dear reader, but Wenatchee The Hatchet got information from people in the community known as Mars Hill in part by not presuming upon a class-based guilt.  Was Obadiah evil for being in Ahab's court?  For saving the lives of prophets whose lives were sought by Jezebel?  Today's categorical approach to guilt can overlook things.  This isn't to suggest there are "heroes" who use Ashley Madison, the question the hack renews for us is to ask about the ethics of information access and disclosure. 

Jonathan Haidt has written that our moral intuitions come first and the explanatory reasoning comes later.  We decide we're okay with something being done and THEN we rationalize it. What a hack introduces, particularly when the information is dumped online for public consideration, is that declaration through action that consent is not necessary for finding out something that was not already disclosed to the public. There's no need for any relational context in which to seek or obtain the information.   If there's a thread in philosophical questions about hacking, content piracy, and government surveillance that have something in common, it's the moral question of when and why it's okay to ignore that you haven't been given consent to gain access to the information you're after.  Haidt has said that we decide something is right first and rationalize later. 

For those whose moral intuition settles that it's okay to gain information of some form without the consent of the one from whom the information is obtained, what's the rationale?  In the case of Wenatchee The Hatchet everything given to Wenatchee The Hatchet was given, everything was volunteered, whether directly or by way of information published to mass and social media.  It's difficult to think of a single thing published at Wenatchee The Hatchet in which informed consent was not the basis of the content received; the people who voluntarily sent in information WANTED to send it. The histories of real estate acquisition and leadership appointments were things Mark Driscoll bragged about from the pulpit. It was simply a matter of preserving things for the record. For those who share content that was not volunteered, what's the incentive?  What is the good for which consent is not only not required but for which consent is irrelevant? 

Of course it's not just in information exchange that informed consent is a crucial ethical question, informed consent is also the crucial ethical question in the exchange of bodily fluids.

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