What To Know About Internet Doxxing, And How It Could Happen To You

Photo courtesy of Johan Viirok via Flickr

Doxxing is a dangerous practice that, depending on motives, can be either embaressing, eye-opening, or life-ruining.

Here’s what you should know about doxxing, and how it could happen to you.

What it means

Doxxing (also spelled doxing) is the Internet-based practice of uncovering an individual’s private, personally identifiable information and broadcasting it publicly — typically online.

Where it comes from

There are two theories on the origin of the word — one, is that it’s derived from dossier, as in the revealing and compilation of a dossier of personal information.

The other theory is that it’s derived from the slang term “dropping dox” (dropping documents), an old-school revenge practice used by hackers in the 1990s. The word doxxing, however, does not show up in Google Trends until early 2012.

How it’s used

Doxxing has been used by various people to achieve different goals. It’s been used for revenge, boundary-crossing investigative journalism, and vigilante justice.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”mXmX042fF5LFld9DZn6tu8cCVvUdLiwo”]Doxxing typically reveals details ranging from perfectly legal to criminally punishable. But unless the information is obtained through nefarious means (hacking), or nefarious purpose (to threaten someone), doxxing is not a crime.

Doxxing ranges from simply posting someone’s name or personal profile, often in an effort to publicly shame for bad conduct or vengeance, to more frightening details like credit card information, home addresses, and social security numbers. Celebrities, criminals, and women tend to be popular targets.

ahasidebarMost recently, the alleged victim at the center of the Rolling Stone’s problem-ridden coverage of a UVA rape scandal was doxxed on Twitter by conservative journalist, Charles C. Johnson.

Those that criticize it

Critics say that while doxxing is not always illegal, it is a form of forced “outing” that has inherent dangers. People that experience doxxing are often subjected to violent threats and may feel unsafe about their security and wellbeing.

There is also the very real issue of doxxing the wrong person, which can taint reputations, spread misinformation, or interfere with official investigations if a crime is committed. Social vigilante group Anonymous has outed the the wrong suspect a handful of times, most recently by naming the wrong officer responsible for killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Users of the online forum Reddit in particular prohibit doxxing as a protection of anonymity.

The video gaming community’s recent scandal GamerGate is another notable example of highly criticized doxxing, which spread personal information of several female game developers and journalists, opening these women up to widespread harassment.

Those that defend it

On the other side of the doxxing spectrum are often investigative journalists, who argue that this type of doxxing is not only legal, but part of the job description. Cases include Newsweek’s (perhaps inaccurate) doxxing of the inventor of Bitcoin, Gawker’s outing of a notorious Reddit troll, and GotTheNews’ outing of UVA student Jackie for what some say were false rape accusations.

In spite of several slip ups, hacktivist group Anonymous has also doxxed individuals accused in rape cases, as well as KKK members for their hateful reaction to the racial tension in Ferguson. These revelations are believed by many to be acceptable and for the public good.

Popular documentary and TV show Catfish, which tracks down the identity of people using fake profiles, may also be considered a type of doxxing — albeit one in which all parties agree to be televised.

How to avoid it

Because personal information about millions of individuals is available online publicly, including phone numbers and home addresses, protecting information from potential doxxers can be hard. A number of services, both free and paid, collect data profiles of Internet users and aggregate data from social media and public records.

Ken Gagne at Computer World offers a step by step guide on how to opt out of the 11 services most used by doxxers to dig up information. Most services have opt out forms that can be filled out and processed fairly quickly.

Unfortunately, many of these services continually update their data profiles and will continue to collect user information even after they’ve opted out.

Other tips to avoid being doxxed include being homeless, ditching your cell phone, not being part of the KKK, not being a woman, and not upsetting large groups of vindictive Internet users.

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Jennifer Markert