As we increasingly turn to the internet for a variety of tasks and social activities, our digital footprint grows. While platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram bring new ways to stay connected to friends and family and make new connections, we need to be careful about the information we leave in the public domain, who could potentially find it and how it could be used.
An awareness of the downsides of social media platforms is growing: they are known vehicles for the spread of misinformation and the incubation of potentially dangerous views and ideologies. They are also used by perpetrators of doxing (intentionally revealing personal information about a targeted individual online), both for gathering information that may harm an individual when launched into public awareness, and for circulating and publicising it.
Doxing: when personal information is revealed online
The term doxing, deriving from ‘dropping’ documents or ‘docs’ to reveal someone’s identity, now refers to any digital attack where personal information about an individual is found online and published or shared with the intention of publicly humiliating or condemning them or compromising their safety. Doxing has led to campaigns being launched against those affected, with consequences ranging from reputational damage to threats to their safety and that of those close to them. Doxing can also lead to cybersecurity issues, making victims more vulnerable to hacking.
The technique of doxing is often motivated by a desire for revenge or to punish someone for holding opposing views or beliefs to those of the perpetrator, and the aim is to violate the victim’s privacy and for them to be embarrassed, threatened or harassed as a result. Victims include high-profile celebrities and politicians, as well as those in specific occupations such as abortion providers, and members of activist groups. However, anyone can potentially fall victim to doxing if someone has a vendetta against them as a result of conflict either online or in the real world.
How doxing happens
Doxing involves scraping the internet to find information about an individual that could cause them harm if brought to public attention. Such information can include contact details, addresses, business interests, comments and views posted online, and photos.
Doxers seek this data from a number of sources: search engines and social media provide a wealth of readily-available information, and some doxers also use paid-for databases, data brokers and the dark web to uncover information. Investigations are often progressive, with just a small amount of data opening doxers up to discovering much more. For example, people often use the same username across different platforms, so once a doxer has identified an individual’s username on one platform, it’s often easy for them to find material posted by the same person across a variety of websites.
Once sourced, doxers publish their findings online to crowd-source attacks and drum up negative sentiment. Resulting actions against the victim can range from embarrassment and reputational damage to threats and even physical harm. Once published, the information is often circulated, shared and commented on, compounding the problems and making it extremely difficult to remove the material from the internet.
What are the digital platforms doing to combat doxing?
In April 2022, Meta took steps to reduce doxing on its platform by banning the sharing of residential addresses, including photographs taken outside private residences, regardless of whether they are publicly available elsewhere online. Meta did, however, announce an exception to the policy if “the property depicted is the focus of the news story” or a publicly-owned official residence. And while such measures may help reduce doxing, some argue that social media companies are not going far enough: Meta has announced it will not be creating a channel to specifically handle complaints of doxing.
How can you minimise the chance of falling victim to doxing?
The best way to avoid falling victim to doxing is to carefully manage your digital footprint.
To gain a comprehensive understanding of your digital footprint that will enable you to manage it successfully, extensive searches must be undertaken to capture any content relating to you online.
There are some straightforward steps, such as ensuring your social media profiles are set as private, that you can take immediately to limit the amount of information about you that is publicly available. You can also contact companies who hold data on you and request that it is removed. Preparation ahead of any potential abuse of your public information is key to shaping your digital profile and mitigating the risk of falling victim to public doxing. Taking steps to prevent opportunities for your privacy to be violated is key: protecting your digital data is as important as protecting your physical possessions.