A Tale of Two Jerks and the Illusion of Privacy

PrivacyThe Internet and mobile technology didn’t invent bad behavior, but they sure have exacerbated it. That’s been vividly illustrated in two stories that broke this week.

Together they offer a cautionary tale about the limits of anonymity and privacy in the modern world.

Anonymity Breeds Contempt

Until he was fired last week, Jofi Joseph was just one of an army of policy wonks working away in Washington. But he had a secret life online, tweeting scathing commentary under the Twitter handle @NatSecWonk.

He tweeted insider gossip about policy and personalities inside the national security apparatus and had a relatively small but fervent following among DC types.

But he went beyond snark and got downright insulting:

I’m a fan of Obama, but his continuing reliance and dependence upon a vacuous cipher like Valerie Jarrett concerns me.


Admit it, when you heard Helen Thomas went out on a date with JFK back in the day, you asked yourself, ‘Wait, she was attractive once?’


Was Huma Abedin wearing beer goggles the night she met Anthony Wiener? Almost as bad a pairing as Samantha Powers and Cass Sunstein ….”

A Cautionary Tale

Of course, he was finally found out (in a bit of a sting operation, apparently), as usually happens in these cases. And while he works to pick up the pieces of his career, he leaves behind just one more cautionary tale about the abuses—and limits—of anonymity on the Internet.

It’s no longer surprising that anonymity often brings out the worst in the human condition. And a number of publications, including the Huffington Post, have tried to stem the troll culture by banning anonymous comments.

(In Chicago, the Tribune started requiring commenters to sign in with their Facebook account, but you can still find plenty of casual racism among the comments, particularly with stories related to urban crime. So people either get around the system by creating fake accounts or they just don’t care how horrible they sound.)

What is surprising, though, is that people continue to operate as if they’ll never be found out. It shoud be clear by now that in the online world, secrecy is fragile and anonymity is an illusion.

The Cell Phone Yammerer

This story is a little less explosive. Last week on the Acela train to New York, Michael Hayden was just one of probably many passengers mindlessly blabbing away on his cell phone.

Only he was no ordinary passenger and this was no ordinary conversation. Hayden is a former director of the National Security Agency, and he was engaged in a conversation about sensitive national security matters with reporters.

But it’s okay. The conversation was strictly “on background” (not for attribution). Problem was, the guy in the seat in front of Hayden just happened to be a political activist (not too surprising on the DC-to-New York train) who couldn’t help but overhear.

He also couldn’t help live-tweeting the bits of the conversation he heard.


I still don’t get this. Even at the dawn of the cell phone era, the image of the too-loud talker became an instant cliche. The habit is widely reviled. And yet it continues.

People on the bus and the train and the sidewalk continue to loudly overshare every conversation, from the mundane to the painfully intimate. They recite their grocery lists, recount their breakups, explain their medical procedures, discuss the terms of their parole. There are no limits.

Some have criticized the “eavesdropper” in this case for violating Hayden’s privacy. Come on! How much privacy should people expect when they’re blabbing out loud in a public place?

I say none.

Like anonymity, privacy is illusion. A lesson that should be abundantly clear to a former director of the NSA!


Ear by Dave Kennard