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C. A. Goldberg PLLC

LET’S TALK ABOUT DOX, BABY.

March 10, 2014

Let’s talk about dox, all the good things and the bad things that may be.  First of all, a definition. Doxxing is the public distribution of a person’s personal information (e.g. name, address, job, phone number, email address) via the internet. Short for “document,” doxxing is the most lethal weaponry available to cyber bullies, internet vigilantes well-intentioned and not, and perpetrators of revenge porn. Key to doxxing are the elements of personal information exposure, an absence of consent by the doxxed person (“doxxee”), the linkage of online-offline life, and public shaming.  There’s usually something gotcha-ish about doxxing — based on an incongruity between the online-offline behaviors of a person or their transgressions in one realm or the other.

Frequently doxxing shows up in the form of exposing the identities of people whose actions online are cloaked in anonymity.  For example, the secret writer of a blog (Full disclosure: My go-to excuse for cancelling plans with past boyfriends was that I was “working on my secret blog.”)

A second form involves publishing personal details about a person online when the doxxer is motivated solely by the consequential harms (e.g. identity theft, stalking harassment) that befall the doxee as a result of things like their address, phone number, social security being available to the public.

A third form of doxxing involves online publication of details about something already newsworthy, sort of a vigilante forensic journalism, frequently with the goal of raising awareness or pressuring the government or justice system to act.  And sometimes there’s meta-doxxing with doxxing within doxxing, like when Edward Snowden doxxed the US government by leaking confidential material about surveillance intrusions, which in turn  led to law enforcers and the general public doxxing him in furtherance of their search and satisfaction of their curiosity, and finally the doxxing of private individuals known to him, such as his girlfriend .

Revenge porn belongs to the second type, the doxxing that exposes online personal details about private persons just for the consequential harms that result.  Over half of the victims of revenge porn are concurrently the victims of doxxing.  Many revenge porn sites are designed so that victims’ personal information (full name, address, etc.) and social media page screenshot are posted alongside the sexual image(s), all of it there without consent and to make the identity of the victim unmistakable and the harm the maximum.

It’s the doxxing that is arguably the most harmful part of revenge porn, in that it establishes the umbilical cord between the image and the person’s name, activating the search engine problem – when you google her name, the highest ranked items are the intimate photos.  Victims then face the wrath of the revenge porn consumers, who inevitably bully and harass the subjects.   There is no shortage of online bottomfeeders baited by the sight of a photo or video of a nude girl in a sexual position next to an accurate name, phone number, and address.  49 percentof victims report that porn consumers stalk and harass them online.  It creates a harassment-by-proxy phenomenon.  The perpetrator basically puts his naked ex-girlfriend and her personal identifying information on a platter, invites the internet over for dinner, and leaves out the back door.

True, doxxing can create positive outcomes.  Like in the Daisy Coleman case.  The online outrage and revelations about the familial relationships between the perpetrators and the municipality exposed the incompetent if not corrupt innerworkings of Maryville’s criminal system and ultimately led to the reopening of her case.  In the Steubenville rape case, doxxing by Anonymous hacktivists resulted first in the discovery of video of football players joking about rape, then millions of YouTube views of the video, and finally the arrest and conviction of two players.   Doxxing isn’t always related to a serious crime.   Jezebel offered $10,000 for somebody to forward the unretouched Annie Leibowitz Vogue shots of Lena Dunham. And two hours later, voilá.

I shamefully did it on my Ian Barber post when I posted that New York’s dismissed revenge pornster was heading to Brooklyn criminal court the following week on a different charge.  Senior writer at Newsweek Leah McGrath Goodman did it to Satoshi Nakamoto in this week’s controversial doxposé about the alleged Bitcoin founder.   And guess how the most vehement critics of the article are responding?  You guessed it, by tit-for-tat doxxing of the journalist.    (“I will pay 0.15 to first person who dox Leah Mcgrath Goodman”)  

But even well-meaning doxxing has its casualties.  The scariest thing about doxxing is its group-thought.  One person makes a convincing argument that Person X is public enemy number one and then all hell breaks loose.  Mistakes get made, nuance lost in the masses, blind trust in the leaders, and the wrong person is stoned to death, cyberly speaking, that is.  Like when somebody was falsely identified by OpAntiBully as one of the rapists in the tragic Raehtaeh Parsons case. And when Reddit falsely identified 22 year-old Sunil Tripathi as the Boston Bomber, an incorrect fact that proliferated around Twitter with legitimate newsmakers (e.g. Politico, BuzzFeed, Newsweek) spreading the misinformation even further, and the story ending with Tripathi’s corpse floating in a river.  And how did the story start?  With one random tweet from a guy named Greg Hughes.

When we look at doxxing and determine how egregious it is, we must assess it with the subject’s expectation of privacy in mind as well as a look at what the public has to gain from the information revealed. When the expectation of privacy is high and the benefit to the public is low, as we see in revenge porn, doxxing itself is an inseparable feature of the crime and the punitive consequences for the doxxer should be greater.  There is a different expectation of privacy based on how public a figure a person is and how serious the public’s need-to-know is, and for that reason, responsible investigative journalism is in a class of its own (at Doxford, of course).  The creator of a digital currency boasting transactions of $500 million a day has a different expectation of privacy than a 21 year-old college kid from Detroit whose ex-boyfriend splattered nude shots of her around the internet beside her name and social security number.  Just like a journalist writing a cover story in one of America’s top-selling magazines has a different expectation of privacy than I do, a little blog writer.  So don’t even think about it.