Category: Privacy

Price Tag
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Differential Pricing and Privacy: Good, Bad, or Otherwise?

The vast and ever increasing collection of information about consumers by search engines, advertisers, data brokers, web merchants, and myriad other online and offline companies raises many concerns. A website that stores (and reads) your emails, records every search you make, knows what addresses you look for on its maps, and holds your documents may know more about you than any other single institution, perhaps even including your family members.

Imagine if your email provider reads your email – or some other data accumulator reads your tweets or social network page – and tells the airlines that you are going to a family funeral across the country. Suddenly, you only find that airlines only offer you seats at a very high price. Think that you can hide your identity by searching before you sign in to buy? Doubtful. Web trackers likely know who you are using IP addresses, cookies, or other tricks invisible to most users.

One of the concerns about this data collection is differential or discriminatory pricing. Consumer advocates and others worry that merchants will use personal information to determine how much each individual consumer is willing to pay for something. That consumer then receives an individual price based on that consumer’s interest, need, income, buying patterns, and other factors. The next consumer pays a different price.

What’s the matter when a merchant charges one consumer a different price than another consumer? This is a surprisingly complicated question to answer.

Economists call the gap between what consumers are willing to pay and the market price the consumer surplus. If consumers lived in the economist’s hypothetical world of many buyers, many sellers, and a fair and transparent marketplace, consumers would expect to find prices based on marginal cost of production with lots of consumer surplus. Differential pricing is a merchant’s dream, with each customer paying a price based on willingness to pay rather than a standard price. Differential pricing could end the consumer surplus.

In the offline world, a merchant typically sets a single price for all consumers. The book is $12.99 to anyone who wants to buy it in the book store. Gasoline is $3.25 a gallon no matter how low a car’s gas tank is or how much the car cost.

In reality, things aren’t that simple in the offline world. The bookstore offers consumers a frequent shopper card (sometimes free. sometimes paid) with a discount on all purchases. The consumer with the card pays less than a consumer without one. The gas station offers a discount on Tuesdays because that’s a slow day. The movie theatre offers lower prices early in the day and higher prices in prime time. Many sellers offer a discount to seniors.

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Protecting the Precursors to Speech and Action

The Constitution cares deeply about the pre-cursors to speech. Calo wondered where my paper, Constitutional Limits on Surveillance: Associational Freedom in the Age of Data Hoarding, parts ways with Solove; it does and it doesn’t. On the one hand, I agree with Dan’s work and build it out. I of course look to the First Amendment as part of understanding what associational freedom is. I also want that understanding to inform criminal procedure. On the other hand, I think that the Fourth Amendment on its own has strong protection for associational freedom. I thus argue that we have missed that aspect of the Fourth Amendment. Furthermore, since Solove and after him Kathy Strandburg, wrote about First Amendment connections to privacy, there has been some great work by Ashutosh Bhagwat, Tabatha Abu El-Haj, John Inazu, on the First Amendment and associational freedom. And Jason Mazzone started some of that work in 2002. I draw on that work to show what associational freedom is. Part of the problem is that when we look to how and why we protect associational freedom, we mistake what it is. That mistake means Fourth Amendment becomes too narrow. We are stuck with protection only for speech acts and associations that speak.

As I put it in the paper:

Our current understanding of associational freedom is thin. We over-focus on speech and miss the importance of the precursors to speech—the ability to share, explore, accept, and reject ideas and then choose whether to speak. Recent work has shown, however, that the Constitution protects many activities that are not speech, for example petition and assembly, because the activities enable self-governance and foster the potential for speech. That work has looked to the First Amendment. I show that these concerns also appear in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence and work to protect us from surveillance regardless of whether the acts are speech or whether they are private.

In that sense I give further support to work by Julie Cohen, Neil Richards, Spiros Simitis, and Solove by explaining that all the details that many have identified as needing protection (e.g., our ability to play; protection from surveillance of what we read and watch) align with core ideals of associational freedom. This approach thus offers a foundation for calls to protect us from law enforcement’s ability to probe our reading, meeting, and gathering habits—our associational freedom—even though those acts are not private or speech, and it explains what the constitutional limits on surveillance in the age of data hoarding must be.

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It’s About Data Hoards – My New Paper Explains Why Data Escrow Won’t Protect Privacy

A core issue in U.S. v. Jones has noting to do with connecting “trivial” bits of data to see a mosaic; it is about the simple ability to have a perfect map of everywhere we go, with whom we meet, what we read, and more. It is about the ability to look backward and see all that information with little to no oversight and in a way forever. That is why calls to shift the vast information grabs to a third party are useless. The move changes little given the way the government already demands information from private data hoards. Yes, not having immediate access to the information is a start. That might mitigate mischief. But clear procedures are needed before that separation can be meaningful. That is why telecom and tech giants should be wary of “The central pillar of Obama’s plan to overhaul the surveillance programs [which] calls for shifting storage of Americans’ phone data from the government to telecom companies or an independent third party.” It does not solve the problem of data hoards.

As I argue in my new article Constitutional Limits on Surveillance: Associational Freedom in the Age of Data Hoarding:

Put differently, the tremendous power of the state to compel action combined with what the state can do with technology and data creates a moral hazard. It is too easy to harvest, analyze, and hoard data and then step far beyond law enforcement goals into acts that threaten civil liberties. The amount of data available to law enforcement creates a type of honey pot—a trap that lures and tempts government to use data without limits. Once the government has obtained data, it is easy and inexpensive to store and search when compared to storing the same data in an analog format. The data is not deleted or destroyed; it is hoarded. That vat of temptation never goes away. The lack of rules on law enforcement’s use of the data explains why it has an incentive to gather data, keep it, and increase its stores. After government has its data hoard, the barriers to dragnet and general searches—ordinarily unconstitutional—are gone. If someone wishes to dive into the data and see whether embarrassing, or even blackmail worthy, data is available, they can do so at its discretion; and in some cases law enforcement has said they should pursue such tactics. These temptations are precisely why we must rethink how we protect associational freedom in the age of data hoarding. By understanding what associational freedom is, what threatens it, and how we have protected it in the past, we will find that there is a way to protect it now and in the future.

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Robotics and the New Cyberlaw

Cyberlaw is the study of the intersection between law and the Internet.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the defining questions of cyberlaw grew out of the Internet’s unique characteristics.  For instance: an insensitivity to distance led some courts to rethink the nature of jurisdiction.  A tendency, perhaps hardwired, among individuals and institutions to think of “cyberspace” as an actual place generated a box of puzzles around the nature of property, privacy, and speech.

We are now well in to the cyberlaw project.  Certain questions have seen a kind of resolution.  Mark Lemley collected a few examples—jurisdiction, free speech, the dormant commerce clause—back in 2003.  Several debates continue, but most deep participants are at least familiar with the basic positions and arguments.  In privacy, for example, a conversation that began around an individual’s control over their own information has evolved into a conversation about the control information affords over individuals to whoever holds it.  In short, the twenty or so years legal and other academics have spent studying the Internet have paid the dividends of structure and clarity that one would hope.

The problem is that technology has not stood still in the meantime.  The very same institutions that developed the Internet, from the military to household-name Internet companies like Google and Amazon, have initiated a significant shift toward a new transformative technology: robotics.  The word “significant” is actually pretty conservative: these institutions are investing, collectively, hundreds of billions of dollars in robotics and artificial intelligence.  People like the Editor-in-Chief of Wired Magazine—arguably the publication of record for the digital revolution—are quitting to found robotics companies.  Dozens of states now have robot-specific laws.

What do we as academics and jurists make of this shift?  It seems to me, at least, that robotics has a distinct set of essential qualities than the Internet and, therefore, will raise a novel questions of law and policy.  If anything, I see robotics as departing even more abruptly from the Internet than did the Internet from personal computers and telephony.  In a new draft article, I explore in detail how I think cyberlaw (and law in general) will change with the ascendance of robotics as a commercial, social, and cultural force.  I am particularly interested in whether cyberlaw—with its peculiar brand of interdisciplinary pragmatism—remains the proper intellectual house for the study of this new transformative technology.

I follow robotics pretty closely but I don’t purport to have all the answers.  Perhaps I have overstated the importance or robotics, misdiagnosed its likely impact, or otherwise selected an unwise path forward.   I hope you read the paper and let me know.

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Third Annual Robotics and Law Conference “We Robot”

hdr-we-robot-2014-1Michael Froomkin, Ian Kerr, and I, along with a wonderful program committee of law scholars and roboticists, have for three years now put on a conference around law, policy, and robotics.  “We Robot” returns to the University of Miami School of Law from Stanford Law School this year and boasts an extraordinary roster of authors, commentators, and participants.  Folks like Jack Balkin, Ann Bartow, Kenneth Anderson, Woodrow Hartzog, Mary Anne Franks, Margot Kaminski, Kate Darling, and David Post, among many others.  Not to mention a demo from a roboticist at the University of Washington whose lab built the surgical robot for the movie Ender’s Game.

I’ve discovered that academics in other disciplines habitually list the acceptance rate of papers.  We Robot III accepted only twenty-five percent of the papers under submission, which compares favorably with the strongest and longest-running conferences in computer science, electrical engineering, and human-computer interaction.  Indeed, judging by the abstracts at least, the papers this year are very exciting, taking on difficult and timely issues from a range of perspectives.

On behalf of our community I invite you to register for and attend We Robot, April 4-5, 2014, in Coral Cables, Florida.  I also hope those who enjoyed We Robot I and II will chime in below, if inclined!  Thank you,

The We Robot III Planning Committee

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Trust Among Strangers, Preliminary Data

Last time, I spoke about how having a stigmatizing secret may be a reason why trust develops among strangers and that the trust that develops is strong enough to permit people to disclose intimate details about themselves. If true, this sociological hypothesis has profound effects for law and policy. If trust can develop among strangers in contexts where sharers will feel secure that their disclosures will not be disseminated further — namely, not go outside the group — then there is reason for the law to protect the privacy of these sharers, even though they shared information with alleged “strangers.” This conclusion bears some similarity with Lior Strahilevitz’s theory on social network-based privacy. But his work appears to take for granted that disclosures to strangers could never retain privacy. I disagree.

I have spent some time devising a proxy for trust and for testing the social determinants of it. Facebook “friend” requests may be a good first step. I would like to ask Facebook users if they accept Friend Requests from strangers and, if so, why. The survey will take the form of two questions: Do you accept Fried Requests from strangers. If so, responders will answer a second question that will ask them if any of a series of factors make it more or less likely that the stranger’s Friend Request will be accepted. The factors will use a Likert Scale of “Much More Likely,” “Somewhat More Likely,” “Neither More Nor Less Likely,” “Somewhat Less Likely,” and “Much Less Likely.” The experiment is designed to test the hypothesis that social networkers will approximate feelings of trust based on any number of digital social cues, but that each profile will see an uptick in Friend Request acceptances after a critical mass of “mutual friends” is established or where minority identity is the same. I will call the first phenomenon the trustworthiness of embedded networks. I also hypothesize that when strangers share a minority or traditionally disadvantaged identity, users are more inclined to accept a Friend Request from a stranger.

It’s common for field researchers to put out beta versions of their surveys to see if the questions are well-written and to identify any unforeseen results. With just under a hundred responses (way too few for a full study), the only factors that appear to have a statistically significant relationship to a willingness to accept friend requests from strangers are sharing a racial or sexual minority identity and having large numbers of mutual friends.

I see pitfalls in this study. The sample may be biased. The friend request proxy is imperfect. Many people simply to not accept friend requests from strangers, so the data set could be limited. I am eager to hear your thoughts on the operation and implications of the study.

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Dispatches from Durham: Sexual Double Standards, Victim Blaming, and Online Abuse

In a series of recent pieces, the Duke Chronicle documented the experience of female students who were shamed for their expressing their sexuality. In one case, a young woman sent an e-mail to her sorority sisters saying that she had sex with a well-known performer who visited campus. The e-mail was leaked to multiple fraternity listservs, the site Betches Love This, and anonymous gossip site Collegiate ACB. On the site, the student was called a “whore, cum dumpster, and swamp monkey.” The various posts received hundreds of similar comments. The student deactivated her Facebook profile, deleted her Instagram, and disabled her Twitter account. Duke freshman “Lauren” was working in the porn industry to earn money to defray some of her college expenses. Lauren had not told anyone about her porn work, until a male classmate confronted her after watching her in a porn film. The student shared his discovery at a fraternity rush event. The story of the “freshman pornstar” went viral. The day after the student talked to his friends, Lauren received more than 230 friend requests on Facebook. Within days, the topic “Freshman Pornstar” was trending on Collegiate ACB. As Lauren confided to the school newspaper, the torment on Duke’s fourth campus–the online campus of the “towering chapel of Facebook,” the “student center of Twitter,” and the “grungy alleyways of Collegiate ACB”–was unrelenting. In a month’s time, the “Freshman Pornstar” thread on Collegiate ACB had 136 comments. The post was the seventh-most-recently commented post on Duke’s page on the gossip site. Some of the now-188 comments were vile, urging readers to write in once they have “banged” her and claiming that she slept with specific individuals and members of fraternities. Some were dangerous, noting her name and address. Comments blamed her for the abuse she was getting: “we going to pretend like she was unaware of the social consequences of going into that business? she made a decision, now she needs to live with the consequences;” “There’s no way she’s going to become a lawyer being a porn star (no law school is going to accept her). Seriously, she needs to get over herself and face the consequences of being a slut. I’ll be surprised if Duke doesn’t kick her out;” “Congratulations, you’ve ruined your own life.” Others defended the student: “you’re seriously making fun of her for that? um.. yeah this is the epitome of bullying.. you guys have written on a public forum her full name and where she lives (leaving her open for stalking and harassment) . as well as calling her a slut and attacking her personal beliefs.” As Lauren told the Chronicle, she feels harassed, hated, and discriminated against. She questions her decision to go to Duke given the abuse.

The Duke Chronicle’s editorial board wrote that the elite university is an “embittered battleground and discussions about Lauren–a first-year porn actress–have extracted salacious and sexist commentary from Duke’s student community.” The board found two primary themes in the commentary: characterizations of Lauren as a morally bankrupt slut and comments expressing a lewd desire to have sex with her. A third, unexamined theme, however, was also apparent–that Lauren was to blame for anything bad coming her way. She chose to do porn, so she assumed the risk of online harassment, poor employment opportunities, social shunning, and the possibility of getting kicked out of school.

Blaming the victim is a typical response to individuals facing online harassment, individuals who are mostly female and who are mostly attacked in sexually demeaning and threatening ways, as my articles and forthcoming book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace explore. After tech blogger Kathy Sierra was threatened with rape and strangulation via e-mail and on her blog, the response was that she chose to blog, so if she could not handle the heat, she should get out of the kitchen. College students blogging about sex were told that they “asked for” rape threats, defamatory lies, and the non-consensual posting of their nude photos because they blogged about their sexuality. Lena Chen’s experience was typical. When Chen attended Harvard, she wrote Sex and the Ivy. Anonymous commenters attacked her not with substantive criticisms of her opinions, but rather with death threats, suggestions of sexualized violence, and racial slurs. On a gossip blog, someone posted her sexually explicit photos, taken by her ex-boyfriend, without her consent. As Slate writer Amanda Hess reported (who would later face rape threats herself, see her recent article about her experience), Chen’s nude photos were reposted all over the Internet. The abuse continued even after she shut down the blog. Chen was accused of provoking the abuse by “making a blog about her personal sex life.” She was labeled an “attention whore” who deserved what she got. Commentators said that she leaked her own naked photos to get attention. Others said that she wrote about sex because she wanted posters to make sexual advances. We hear the same about victims of revenge porn.

Blaming the victim is a recurring theme. Society once blamed female employees for provoking their employers’ sexual advances. Wives were once told that they provoked domestic abuse. Just as society now recognizes sexual harassment at work and domestic abuse as serious social problems that victims did not bring on themselves, female college students are not to blame for online abuse if they have sex or make porn. Bloggers who write about sex are not to blame for online attacks. Revenge porn victims should not be blamed when harassers violate their trust and vindictively post their nude photos. Sexual double standards are at the heart of this response. Would we, for instance, say the same to men writing about sex? Tucker Max earned millions from writing books and a blog about his drunken sexual experiences with hundreds of women. By contrast, female sex bloggers have been attacked and told that they “asked for it.” As the Duke chronicle insightfully noted, the wildly different responses to the sexual escapades of Duke graduates Tucker Max and Karen Owen confirm that a sexual double standard is alive and well.


 

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Could Revenge Porn Victims Seek Civil Liability Against Hunter Moore?

Suppose that former revenge porn operator Hunter Moore is convicted of federal crimes of conspiracy to engage in computer hacking. Could individuals whose nude photos appeared on his site next to their home addresses and screenshots of their Facebook profiles sue Moore for intentional infliction of emotional distress and public disclosure of private fact? Probably not, but it’s worth exploring the issue.

The closest case law involves civil penalties provided for under federal criminal law. In M.A. v. Village Voice, a federal district court judge found that Backpage.com enjoyed Section 230 immunity for civil penalties under the child trafficking statute, 18 U.S.C. 2255. Section 2255 allows victims of child trafficking to recover damages from those who had committed or profited from the crimes against them. provides that, “[a]ny person who, while a minor, was a victim of a violation of [criminal statutes concerning child trafficking] and who suffers personal injury as a result of such violation may sue” and “recover actual damages such person sustained.” The representatives of a victim of child trafficking argued that Section 230 immunity was inapplicable because Backpage.com had profited from the plaintiff’s victimization in violation of Section 2255. As the court held, however, Section 2255 was a “civil damages” provision of Title 18, not federal criminal law.

The only remaining question is whether Moore materially contributed to the contested content–nude photos and Facebook screen shots. If so, he could be found liable as a co-developer of the content that often was tantamount to cyber stalking. Of course, the question of liability would remain. Just because a site operator does not enjoy immunity from liability does not mean he would be strictly liable for torts of intentional infliction of emotional distress, for instance. The question would be whether he intentionally inflict emotional distress on particular individuals? Recall that Moore boasted to the press that the more embarrassing and destructive the material, the more money he made. When a reporter told him that revenge porn had driven people to commit suicide, Moore said that he did not want anybody to die, but if it happened, he would be grateful for the publicity and advertising revenue it would generate; “Thank you for the money . . . from all of the traffic, Googling, redirects, and press.” Earlier this year, Moore told Betabeat’s Jessica Roy that he was relaunching his site including not just of people’s Facebook accounts, but their home addresses. “We’re gonna introduce the mapping stuff so you can stalk people,” he told Roy. When talking to Forbes’s Kashmir Hill, Moore backed off his statement, claiming to be drunk, but had tweeted, “I’m putting people’s house info with google earth directions. Life will be amazing.”

More broadly, sites that principally host revenge porn are making a mockery of Section 230. As Citizen Media Law Project’s Sam Bayard explains, a site operator can enjoy the protection of Section 230 while “building a whole business around people saying nasty things about others, and . . . affirmatively choosing not to track user information that would make it possible for an injured person to go after the person directly responsible.” In my book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, I explore the possibility of Section 230 reform to ensure that the worst actors don’t enjoy immunity. It’s certainly a perverse result that the “Good Samaritan” provision of the Communications Decency Act immunizes from liability sites that solicit and principally host revenge porn and other forms of cyber stalking. More to come in August, when Harvard University Press publishes the book.

 

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Some Thoughts on Section 230 and Recent Criminal Arrests

We’ve devoted considerable attention on our blog to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes online service providers/hosts from liability for user-generated content. Site operators are protected from liability even though they knew (or should have known) that user-generated content contained defamation, privacy invasions, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil rights violations, and state criminal activity. Providing a safe harbor for ISPs, search engines, and social networks is a good thing. If communication conduits like ISPs did not enjoy Section 230 immunity, they would surely censor much valuable online content to avoid publisher liability. The same is true of search engines that index the vast universe of online content and produce relevant information to users in seconds and, for that matter, social media providers that host millions, and some billions, of users. Without Section 230, search engines like Google and Bing and social media providers like Yelp, Trip Advisor, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter might not exist. The fear of publisher liability would have inhibited their growth. For that reason, Congress reaffirmed Section 230’s importance in the SPEECH Act of 2010, which requires U.S. courts to apply the First Amendment and Section 230 in assessing foreign defamation judgments.

In the past few months, prosecutors have arrested notorious revenge porn site operators Hunter Moore, Kevin Bolleart, and Casey Meyering. Those arrests have raised the question, what about Section 230? Hunter Moore’s arrest is the least controversial. Although Section 230 immunity is broad sweeping, it isn’t absolute. It exempts from its reach federal criminal law, intellectual property law, and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. As Section 230(e) provides, the statute has “[n]o effect” on “any [f]ederal criminal statute” and does not “limit or expand any law pertaining to intellectual property.” Federal prosecutors indicted Moore for conspiring to hack into people’s computers in order to steal their nude images. According to the indictment, Moore paid a computer hacker to access women’s password-protected computers and e-mail accounts to steal nude photos for financial gain—profits for his revenge porn site Is Anyone Up. Site operators may be held accountable for violating federal criminal law.

What about revenge porn operators Bolleart and Meyerson who are facing state criminal charges? Generally speaking, site operators are not transformed into “information content providers” (who are not immunized from liability) unless they co-developed or co-created the allegedly criminal/tortious content, such as by paying for the illegal content and reselling it or drafting some of the contested content themselves. California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s prosecutions of both Bolleart and Meyerson press the question whether Section 230’s immunity extends to sites that effectively engage in extortion by encouraging the posting of sensitive private information and profiting from its removal.

Let’s take Bolleart’s case. It’s based on a similar theory as the case against Meyerson, who runs WinbyState, a private revenge porn site with a connected site that charges for the take down of photos. In December 2013, Bollaert, operator of revenge porn site UGotPosted, was indicted for extortion, conspiracy, and identity theft. His site featured the nude photos, Facebook screen shots, and contact information of more than 10,000 individuals. The indictment alleged that Bollaert ran the revenge porn site with a companion takedown site, Change My Reputation. According to the indictment, when Bollaert received complaints from individuals, he would send them e-mails directing them to the takedown site, which charged up to $350 for the removal of photos. Attorney General Harris explained that Bollaert “published intimate photos of unsuspecting victims and turned their public humiliation and betrayal into a commodity with the potential to devastate lives.”

Bollaert will surely challenge the state’s criminal law charges on Section 230 grounds. His strongest argument is that charging for the removal of user-generated photos is not tantamount to co-developing them. Said another way, charging for the removal of content is not the same as paying for, or helping develop, it. That is especially true of the identity theft charges because Bollaert never personally passed himself off as the subjects depicted in the photos. Nonetheless, the state has a strong argument that the extortion charges fall outside Section 230’s immunity because they hinge on what Bollaert himself did and said, not on what his users posted. Only time will tell if that sort of argument will prevail. Even if the California AG’s charges are dismissed on Section 230 grounds, federal prosecutors could charge Bollaert with federal criminal extortion charges. Sites that encourage cyber harassment and charge for its removal (or have a financial arrangement with removal services) are engaging in extortion. At the least, they are actively and knowingly conspiring in a scheme of extortion. Of course, this possibility depends on the enforcement of federal criminal law vis-à-vis cyber stalking, which as we have seen is stymied by social attitudes and insufficient training.

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What Makes a Stranger Not So Strange

Most of the literature on trust among strangers comes from game theorists. Scholars perform simulations of so-called “trust games” to suggest that “impersonal trust” can develop under this or that circumstance. This literature is voluminous (the previous link is just one of many hits from a JSTOR search). The mere fact that trust among repeat actors can be seen in repeated evolutionary games should, at the very least, complicate a legal doctrine that necessarily extinguishes privacy upon disclosures. But you don’t have to understand (or agree) with game theorists to see the problem with such a bright line rule.

Over the last year, I observed different types of support group meetings, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and an HIV-positive support group. I interviewed several members, though many members declined to be interviewed, as I expected. These support groups thrive on privacy and anonymity. The very characteristic that made me want to study them was the very thing that would make it hard: members of such groups tend to know everything about a specific area of each other’s lives (their addiction), but often know precious little about a participant’s life and identity outside of what brought him to the group in the first place. In many cases, outside of the sponsor-recovering relationship, even last names remain unknown. And yet they share a secret that, unfortunately, retains a significant stigma in greater society.

This knowledge asymmetry is not always the case, I must admit. But for now, let’s accept the scenario: Participants are veritable strangers, except they know this one big secret about each other. This was in fact the story for most of the people I interviewed. And although this type of ethnography must always be a dubious source for grand conclusions about wide populations, we can still ask: Why do recovering addicts share their stigmatizing secret with strangers?

My research suggests it is because they all share the same stigmatizing secret. It is not simply that everyone shares the same secret or the same identity. People who are all Libras or all white males or all like Maroon5 do not necessarily feel a comfort level with those who were born at the same time, look the way they do, and listen to the same music, respectively. Rather, the shibboleth of a willingness to open up among strangers in this context is that everyone shares a stigmatizing identity. They trust each other not because they know them but because they know what they’ve been through in the greater world. And this is entirely reasonable.

I think this trust exists in other areas of life and not just in the unique support group environment. If it does, if trust develops among individuals who share a stigmatizing identity, then trust among so-called strangers can exist such that individuals would not be assuming the risk of further disclosure of a secret revealed to such a stranger.

I have designed a study to test this, using accepting/declining “friend” requests from strangers as a proxy. It is an imperfect proxy, but trust is hard to measure. But if we can control for other factors and see that friend requests from strangers are accepted more frequently by individuals who share a defining, stigmatizing characteristic — sexual minority status, is just one example — then we may have found a social determinant of trust among strangers.