What Is Doxxing and Is It Illegal?
Around 93% of American adults use the internet, according to the Pew Research Center. Since it first became available to the public, the internet has connected communities, spread information and opened up new opportunities for work, education and business.
However, it has also introduced new ways of harassing people. Doxxing is one type of cyber harassment that you should know about if you’re regularly online.
Doxxing is when someone exposes personal information about you on the internet. The word comes from the world of hacking. It’s a combination of the documents, or “dox,” and dropping. So, “doxxing” means “dropping documents.”
Doxxing can be used to hold people accountable for illegal acts or threatening language. However, it’s more commonly used to harass people for different views and take revenge on others.
If you’ve been doxxed, someone has posted personal or sensitive information about you online. In the early days of the internet, when people didn’t use their own names, this usually involved linking a username to your real name. Today, more people use their real names online, but that doesn’t mean that doxxing has gone away. Doxxers can provide the public with your:
- Private photos
- Contact details
One example of doxxing being used to hold people accountable is the case of former MLB pitcher Curt Schilling. Twitter trolls made threats against his college-aged daughter, and Schilling used publicly available information to identify two of the trolls. Both had their Twitter accounts canceled, among other consequences.
On the other side of the equation is the Gamergate harassment campaign. A number of women in the video game industry were doxxed, leading to threats of violence, threatening phone calls and, in some cases, the release of financial information. In some cases, the women had to leave their homes after addresses were released online.
Internet sleuths often try to identify criminals, which is another example of doxxing. Although people are trying to help, this action can be risky. There have been cases where the wrong person is publicly identified as a criminal, which can put them at risk. This is what happened with Sunil Tripathi, who was mistakenly named as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing.
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Just releasing someone’s personal information isn’t illegal, especially if that information is publicly available. However, if you get any of the information through illegal means such as hacking, the hacking is illegal.
Where doxxing crosses the line into illegality is when it’s intended to harass. Although each state has different rules, stalking and harassment are generally illegal. If doxxing is part of a harassment campaign, a person may be charged. Unfortunately, the law may still be catching up with the harm that the internet can do, and you may have trouble convincing law enforcement that there is a problem.
There are federal laws that apply to cyber harassment or stalking; however, it must be very extreme for the FBI to get involved. As far as state laws are concerned, they often don’t distinguish between online and offline stalking and harassment. For doxxing to be a criminal offense, it usually has to cause the victim disturbance, substantial emotional distress or fear for their own or their family’s lives or safety. Doxxing itself may not meet these standards, but if it is accompanied by threats, you may have legal recourse.
The first step to take if you’ve been doxxed is to report it to the relevant platform. A lot of doxxing happens on social media sites such as X (formerly known as Twitter) or Reddit. You can report posts that contain your personal information. These actions aren’t tolerated on most social media sites, and moderators will remove them. Make sure you take a screenshot first so that you have proof if you want to take legal action.
If you’re concerned about your safety, you should alert the police or friends so they know what’s going on. You should also lock or deactivate accounts where you may be targeted for harassment.
Finally, if your financial documents have been included in the doxxing, it’s important to keep an eye out for identity theft. Change your passwords and alert your bank so they can be on guard for fraudulent transactions. It can also help to freeze your credit reports. This will stop people from opening accounts or taking out loans in your name.
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