Is the Group Chat Sacred?

By Jessica Grose

Heidi Cruz learned the hard way that text chains can be leaked.

Credit...Getty Images
Jessica Grose

My moms message group has long been a solace to me, especially in this pandemic year. It is a place to vent and plan and strategize, and I have definitely said many things I would not want to be blasted out into public.

I thought of my own potentially embarrassing messages on Thursday night. That’s when I saw the anonymously leaked texts from a chat group, which included Heidi Cruz, the wife of Senator Ted Cruz. Through this leak, we learned additional details about the Cruz family’s ill-advised trip to Cancún.

The Cruzes were photographed hopping on a plane to Mexico on Wednesday, while many of the Senator’s constituents in Texas lacked heat, water and power. Mrs. Cruz had invited her neighbors to come along with her to flee the “FREEZING” weather, and discussed the rates at the Ritz-Carlton in Cancún. It has been a public relations disaster for Senator Cruz.

Whatever your stance is on Cruz’s politics, the chats entered the internet discourse in a big way, and struck fear in the hearts of those of us who like to be messy in our texts. “Are we all up in our group chats now, looking around, wondering who the ‘most likely to snitch’ might be?” wondered Allison P. Davis, a writer at New York Magazine.

As the politics reporter Ashley Parker put it in The Washington Post, “Group text chains, after all, are among the most intimate and sacred forms of communications, and if you can’t trust your ‘friends’ not to leak them, then who can you trust?”

I decided to ask two experts about their thoughts on this very modern debacle. Was leaking the chats ethical? Do you have a reasonable assumption of privacy when you’re texting the moms on your block, or should you assume that the world is going to know when you step in it?

Kwame Anthony Appiah, the in-house ethicist at The New York Times Magazine and a professor of philosophy and law at New York University, said that the situation “strikes me as a pretty substantial breach of norms about confidentiality.” Even though Ted Cruz is a public figure, he didn’t do anything terrible enough to warrant a breach of such norms, Mr. Appiah said. We already knew that Senator Cruz had taken the trip to Cancún a day before the leak of the texts, and that his poodle, Snowflake, had been left at home in the cold.

The public gain from the additional information — which allowed people to know that Mr. Cruz was not being honest when he implied his trip was only meant to last a day — did not make it worth breaking the secrecy of the group, Mr. Appiah said. “It is unwise to wander off to a luxury hotel,” during a crisis in your state when you’re an elected official, “but it’s not like killing somebody,” he said.

Catherine Price, the founder of Screen/Life Balance and the author of “How to Break Up with Your Phone,” had a different take. “It’s unquestionably not a nice thing to do, and in most circumstances would be morally wrong,” she said. But Ms. Price thought that because she is the wife of a public figure, Heidi Cruz should not have assumed that any of her written communication would remain private. “Unless it’s encrypted, you can’t assume anything is private,” she said.

Still, “How nice would it be to feel fully safe in our correspondence with people?” mused Ms. Price. A rule of thumb for feeling safe comes from the Times’s own Astead Herndon, who tweeted, “The key to every group chat is mutually assured destruction. If you’re the only one dropping tea, you’re at risk. If one person is a little too silent, they gotta go.” I recommend you spend your time this weekend reviewing your chats, culling the parents who are keeping it close to the vest.