In her 2013 book Between the Raindrops, Susan Schussler famously states: “The Internet, my fickle friend, my two-faced enemy, what would life be like without you? Where else can I be anonymously anyone and yet, have no anonymity at all?”
Think about that for a minute. Sitting behind our screens, we can (if we choose to) privately and anonymously do, see, and say things to people that we would never dream of acting out in real (offline) life. It’s easy to do because, well, nobody has to know who you are or any personal details about you – you’re just a screen name and (maybe) a random photo. We can let go of the Henry Jekyll that we portray which everyone sees in public and be a little bit of the Edward Hyde that we typically suppress.
Even if you’re a public figure, it’s easy to advocate for a cause without fear or repercussions because you – like everyone else online and offline – are largely insulated by your personal privacy: nobody knows where you live, has your phone number, has any of your personal information, or has access to your email account.
But what if you weren’t? What if all of your personal information, contact information, private communication, and affiliations were all known and used as a weapon against you? Unfortunately, there’s a word for that: doxxing.
Born on the 1990s discussion board Usenet, the term originated as computer hacker slang: “documents” became “docs”, which was again shortened to the homonymous “dox”. As for how the term as we know it related to documents, the association comes from the slightly abstract sense of gathering a dossier of information on someone, which, in the physical sense, would involve documents.
From Usenet flame wars and the threat of releasing the personal information on a discussion board, the term (as well as the concept) began to enter the mainstream through a 2003 presentation at the United States Military Academy covering cryptovirology attacks (aka malware) which was later incorporated into a book, Malicious Cryptography, by Adam Young and Moti Yung. In the 2004 work, Young and Yung summarise malicious doxware (doxxing software) as: “The attack differs from the extortion attack in the following way. In the extortion attack, the victim is denied access to its own valuable information and has to pay to get it back, where in the attack that is presented here the victim retains access to the information but its disclosure is at the discretion of the computer virus.”
Still, what largely caused the widespread understanding of the term was the 2006 creation of a YouTube channel dedicated to discovering and leaking information on other YouTube vloggers who were considered by the group to be hateful or racist. Seeing the effectiveness of such activities, once affiliated and opposition groups began to take part in such activities, the term achieved one of the “holy grails” of Internet acceptance – a listing on Urban Dictionary – in 2008. 3 years later, in 2011, the term was added to Wiktionary.
Though, depending on an individual’s stance, certain types of doxxing may seem justified, even necessary, it is worth noting that, unlike investigative journalism, doxxing is almost always used with a negative connotation. Whereas the contacts, funding activities, association and communication of elected officials (for example) is typically seen as a good thing, such as with organisation like Wikileaks, doxxing a private citizen is usually looked at negatively. In some cases, doxxing has to some profoundly bad results, such as harassment, threats, property crime, or, in the case of Andrew Finch from Kansas, whose doxxing involved a bogus call to police that resulted in him being shot and killed, death; moreover, looking at the most recent large-scale doxxing operation, involving numerous German politicians (even Merkel herself) and media personalities, more than any damning data, the doxxing operation itself, involving the release of chat transcripts, phone numbers, bank account details, email passwords, and ID card scans via Twitter has severely shaken faith in infrastructural data security.
Regardless of how we look at it dox/doxxing isn’t going away anytime soon, and, as the recent German doxxing demonstrates, even highly secured data channels are not fully secure. Because of that, though we can still all benefit from the veil of privacy and anonymity that the Internet offers, maybe it’s time that we paid a little more attention to the what, where, and how of our online activities and a lot more attention to protecting our sensitive information.
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