Doxxing: what it is and why it’s a growing concern
Doxxing is a term that has become increasingly popular in recent years, particularly with the rise of whistleblowers and vigilantes on social media. The term refers to the act of publicly revealing someone’s personal information without their consent, such as their home address, phone number, and even their social security number. This information may be obtained through hacking, social engineering, or open-source intelligence-gathering techniques. The consequences of doxxing on a victim can be severe, putting individuals at risk of harassment, stalking, identity theft, and even physical harm.
What is doxxing?
Doxxing can take many different forms, depending on the motivations of the person carrying it out. In some cases, it may be used as a form of revenge or retaliation against someone who has crossed the doxxer somehow. In other cases, it’s a tool for political activism or to expose wrongdoing by individuals or organizations. A person’s motivation for doxxing another individual is often subjective, with both sides claiming to be victims.
The process of doxxing typically involves gathering as much personal information as possible about the target, often by scouring public records and social media profiles. This information is then compiled into a dossier or “dox” and shared publicly, often on forums or other online platforms. From there, the information can be used to harass, intimidate, or physically harm the target.
A well-known case of doxxing involved the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Khashoggi had been critical of the Saudi government and targeted by online trolls and doxxers before his death. In the aftermath of his murder, it was revealed that the Saudi government had used hacking tools to spy on Khashoggi and other journalists. This intel ignited calls for sanctions to protect journalists from activities like doxxing.
Where did doxxing get its name?
There are various origins for the term ‘doxxing,’ but one explanation suggests it evolved from ‘dropping documents.’ Over time, ‘documents’ changed into ‘dox.’ This term is now used as a verb to describe the act of doxxing. CNN reports that doxxing dates back to the 1990s.
Is doxxing illegal?
The legality of doxxing varies depending on the circumstances and the jurisdiction in which it occurs. In many cases, doxxing falls into a legal gray area, as there may not be specific laws that address this type of behavior. For example, the legality of the act is questionable when details in the dox are public record and merely assembled or distributed by the doxxer.
However, there are many instances where doxxing can be considered illegal, particularly if it involves the theft of personal information or is used to incite violence or harassment. In 2021, William Kaetz, a man from New Jersey, was sentenced to 16 months in prison for posting the home address of a federal judge online. The charge against Kaetz was for making restricted information publicly available with the intent of causing harm to the judge. He then left a voicemail at her office and sent a message to her personal email account, calling her a “traitor.”
One of the challenges with prosecuting doxxing cases is that it can be difficult to identify the person or people responsible for the attack. Doxxers may use anonymity tools such as the Tor network or VPNs to hide their identities, making it difficult for authorities to track them down.
The doxxing of Elon Musk
There have been many high-profile cases of doxxing in recent years, including several involving celebrities and public figures. One notable example is Elon Musk, the tech billionaire and founder of SpaceX and Tesla. In 2018, Musk was doxxed by a group calling themselves “The Dark Overlord,” who claimed to have obtained sensitive information about his companies and threatened to release it unless a ransom was paid. Musk has also been the target of Twitter accounts like @ElonJet, which tracked the movement of his private plane, arguably a form of doxxing.
Since Twitter was central in the global spread of Musk’s dox, some have speculated that it fueled his desire to purchase the social media giant. Others, however, argue Musk is using Twitter to wreak doxxing-style havoc on his opponents.
The dangers of doxxing to personal safety
The consequences of doxxing can be severe, both for the target and others who may be affected by releasing personal information. One of the most immediate dangers is the risk of physical and financial harm to the target. Targets of doxxing may also be subject to harassment, stalking, or threats, which can significantly impact their mental health and well-being.
Another danger of doxxing is the risk of identity theft. When personal information such as social security numbers or bank account details are released, criminals can use it to steal the target’s identity and money. These losses can have long-lasting consequences for the victim, including legal expenses, damage to their credit score, and difficulty recovering assets.
How to prevent doxxing and protect your personal information
You can take several steps to protect yourself from doxxing and other forms of online harassment. One of the most important is being careful about personal information shared online, particularly on social media platforms. These precautions may include avoiding posting personal details such as home addresses, phone numbers, or email addresses, even behind privacy settings. And always be cautious about accepting friend requests or connections from people you don’t know. Lifewire has an excellent guide on how to spot fake friend requests.
Other steps to protect against doxxing may include:
- Leveraging privacy tools such as VPNs or Tor to hide your online activity
- Using strong passwords and two-factor authentication to protect online accounts
- Being aware of phishing scams and other forms of social engineering that could be used to obtain personal information
- Avoid replying to Facebook and other social media posts that ask you to reveal personal preferences, the first time you ever did something, or other details, as these posts often reveal details someone could use to find additional personal information or passwords.
An Internet ocean littered with doxxable data
Doxxing is a growing concern in the digital age, with the potential to cause significant harm to individuals and organizations. While it can be challenging to prevent doxxing entirely, there are steps that individuals can take to protect themselves and their personal information. By being careful about what is shared online and using privacy tools to protect against attacks, it is possible to reduce the risk of becoming a victim of doxxing.