The revelation of clandestine personal information has occurred for as long as clandestine personal information has existed. This has been practiced throughout human history as intelligence gathering by states and private firms, investigation of crimes, security testing, harassment, social shaming, blackmail, and vigilantism.[1] In the age of the Internet, the researching and broadcasting of private, personally identifiable information about individuals and organizations has become easier than ever, and thus a more serious problem. Let us consider the nature of the practice known as doxxing, the possible effects on victims, and potential countermeasures.

The Nature and Effects of Doxxing

By using publicly searchable databases, social media, social engineering, and hacking, a doxxer can gain access to private information about a person or organization. The term doxxing to refer to the publication of a dossier of such information derives from the Internet slang “dropping dox”, dating to the 1990s. Black-hat hackers in that era would sometimes dox one another in order to expose someone to harassment and/or criminal prosecution.[2] In a 2003 presentation at West Point, Adam Young and Moti Yung presented a novel type of computer virus known as doxware. Such a virus does not encrypt files and demand ransom for a decryption key, as traditional extortion programs do; rather, it simply copies private information and threatens to publicize it unless payment is made.[3,4] Doxxing entered mainstream public awareness through the Internet-based group of activists known as Anonymous, who frequently use the tactic.[5]

Once a doxxer has a compiled dossier on an individual or group, a variety of tactics are possible, with a wide range of outcomes: mobs can be directed to protest at a person’s home or business, an employer can be harassed into firing the person, advertisers and investors can be coerced into ending their association with a person or group, a public figure can be intimidated into silence, fake sign-ups for deliverable goods and services can be made, a police raid can be sent with a false tip of a bomb threat or hostage situation, social media and financial accounts can be hacked, or criminals may be sent to harm or even assassinate someone.[6]

The aforementioned effects can completely ruin a person’s life. Aside from the possibility of direct bodily harm from misaimed vigilante mobs or police raids under false pretenses, a person’s family can be left without sustenance if doxxing leaves one unable to find employment or sponsorship and one does not qualify for state assistance. Leaving or being expelled from university because of doxxing can alter a person’s entire life trajectory. Fixing identity theft that can occur as a result of personal information being publicized can consume a vast amount of time, effort, and resources. Exposing the identity of a political or religious dissident living under a hostile regime can cause harm or death to that person. The shame and social alienation following doxxing and association with a negative behavior or vilified political cause can cause depression and even lead to suicide.[7]

In recent years, doxxing has increasingly been carried out by journalists who claim that they are revealing information that is in the public interest. Many journalists who work for establishment media firms seem to believe that they are somehow entitled to do what is considered wrong for anyone else to do, especially if they strongly disagree with the politics of a person or organization. The ethics of doxxing in journalism and the relationship between journalism and activism are matters of ongoing debate and controversy.[8,9]

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References:

  1. Bright, Peter (2012, Mar. 7). “Doxed: how Sabu was outed by former Anons long before his arrest”. Ars Technica.
  2. Honan, Mat (2014, Mar. 6). “What Is Doxing?”. Wired.
  3. Young, A. (2003). Non-Zero Sum Games and Survivable Malware. IEEE Systems, Man and Cybernetics Society Information Assurance Workshop. p. 24–29.
  4. A. Young, M. Yung (2004). Malicious Cryptography: Exposing Cryptovirology. Wiley.
  5. “Anonymous’s Operation Hiroshima: Inside the Doxing Coup the Media Ignored”. Ibtimes.com. Jan. 1, 2012.
  6. Cohen, David S.; Connon, Krysten (2015, May 21). “Strikethrough (Fatality); The origins of online stalking of abortion providers”. Slate.
  7. Nark, Jason. (2014, Apr. 30). “The Boston bombing’s forgotten victim”. Philadelphia Daily News.
  8. “Rethinking the ethics of doxing”. Background Probability, Dec. 14, 2014.
  9. Ingram, Mathew (2014, Mar. 6). “Of Bitcoin and doxxing: Is revealing Satoshi Nakamoto’s identity okay because it was Newsweek and not Reddit?”.
  10. Chrisman, Harry E. “Cattle Rustling”. Old Meade County.
  11. “Bentonville Anti-Horse Thief Society”. Ohio History Central.
  12. Rachel Ginnis Fuchs (2005). Gender and Poverty in Nineteenth Century Europe. Cambridge University Press. p. 97.
  13. Luckett, Matthew S. (2014). Honor among Thieves: Horse Stealing, State-Building, and Culture in Lincoln County, Nebraska, 1860 – 1890 (Ph.D.). University of California Los Angeles.