Editor’s Note: This story is part of ‘Systems Error’, a series by CNN As Equals, investigating how your gender shapes your life online. For information about how CNN As Equals is funded and more, check out our FAQs.
In 2017, Kyle Quinn enjoyed the anonymity any engineering professor typically would until he became a target of doxxing. Angry social media users mistakenly identified him as having attended a White nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. His pictures, home address and employer’s name quickly made rounds across social networks, frightening Quinn and his wife and sending them to a colleague’s home for refuge, the New York Times reported.
Quinn is one of many victims of doxxing, a form of online invasion of personal privacy that can lead to devastating consequences.
According to the International Encyclopedia of Gender, Media, and Communication, doxxing is the intentional revelation of a person’s private information online without their consent, often with malicious intent. This includes the sharing of phone numbers, home addresses, identification numbers and essentially any sensitive and previously private information such as personal photos that could make the victim identifiable and potentially exposed to further harassment, humiliation and real-life threats including stalking and unwanted encounters in person.
There are multiple etymologies for the term, but the cybersecurity firm Kapersky reports that one explanation is that doxxing came from the phrase ”dropping documents” and gradually ”documents” became ”dox” which has been used as a verb to refer to the practice. Originally a form of online attack used by hackers, the firm wrote, doxxing has been around since the 1990s.
Doxxing can happen in many ways online and on other platforms.
According to the International Encyclopedia of Gender, Media, and Communication, in 2014, the gaming industry experienced a watershed moment known as Gamergate, a year-long culture war led by far right trolls online. After Eron Gjoni, ex-boyfriend of game developer Zoe Quinn uploaded a blog post about their break up, accused her of cheating on him, and shared screenshots of their private communications on an online forum, Quinn became one of many gamers to be a high-profile target of doxxing and rape threats, followed by many other female game developers who raised their voices, according to The Guardian.
One of the victims, the American game developer Brianna Wu wrote in the magazine Index on Censorship: ”The truth is there is no free speech when speaking about your experiences leads to death threats, doxxing and having armed police sent to your house.”
In 2014, Wu tweeted about escaping her home out of fear for her safety along with screenshots of death threats sent to her account.
In 2019, the South African journalist and broadcaster Karima Brown missent a message meant for her producer to a WhatsApp group run by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) political party in which journalists are able to get media statements from the EFF, according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ). Julius Malema, the party leader, accused her of spying on the party, and reacted by tweeting her phone number to his 2.3 million followers. Brown reportedly received rape and murder threats, including graphic messages 7]. The high court in Johannesburg later ruled the doxxing was a violation of the country’s Electoral Act, according to the CPJ, with Brown telling the non-profit that the court’s ruling was “a victory for democracy and media freedom, and a blow against misogyny and toxic masculinity.”
Facebook’s parent company Meta does not explicitly use the term ”doxxing” in its privacy violations policy, but said in a statement to CNN that it considers users sharing ”personally identifiable information” about others a violation of its community standards. The company says it reviews any piece of content against its community standards and may remove private information such as home addresses that could result in tangible harm unless this information is publicly available through news coverage, press releases or other sources. Facebook users can use a specific reporting channel when they are concerned about their image privacy on the platform.
TikTok clearly defines doxxing in its community guidelines which ban both the collection and publication of individuals’ personal information for malicious intent. Users can report a specific item on the platform and follow the instructions.
Twitter’s app and desktop versions allow you to report other users who tweet private information and media about themselves or somebody else without permission by clicking on the three dots in the corner of an offending tweet, then Report Tweet and following the instructions. Users found in violation of the policy are required to remove the content in question and temporarily locked out of their account. Twitter says permanent suspension may result from a second violation. Users can also file a separate form to report such violations.
It depends on the jurisdiction. In Asia, Singapore outlawed most forms of intentional harassment or distress in 2014, which includes doxxing, and violators can be fined up to SGD $5,000 (nearly $3,800 US) and/or jailed for up to 6 months.
In Indonesia, activists told CNN that doxxing cases have been on the rise, especially those targeting women human rights defenders and journalists. Damar Juniarto, the executive director of Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network, a network of digital rights activists, said the term doxxing ”is not known in the Indonesia legal system” causing some doxxing cases to not be taken seriously by police. But he explained that the Personal Data Protection law, passed in September, punishes people who use and share personal information without a person’s consent, which can include doxxing.
In the UK, there are clear guidelines for prosecutors to handle cases, particularly cases of violence against women and girls, which involve threats to post personal information on social media and the disclosure of private sexual images without consent, and the punishments vary.
In the US, measures to combat doxxing vary across states. Last year, Nevada passed a bill that bans doxxing and allows victims to bring a civil action against the perpetrators. In California, cyber harassment including doxxing with the intent to put others and their immediate family in danger can put violators in county jail for up to one year or impose a fine of up to $1,000, or both.
In 2021, Hong Kong authorities amended the data privacy law to include doxxing, with people facing jail sentences of up to five years and fines of up to HK$1 million ($129,000 US). This followed the doxxing of many officials and police officers during the 2019 protests against the Hong Kong government’s proposed bill to allow extraditions to mainland China. Critics argued that doxxing can be legally defended if sharing information about government officials out of public interest.
Lauren Krapf, the technology policy and advocacy counsel for the Anti-Defamation League in the US, said whether doxxing is criminal depends on the intent.
”I think in certain circumstances, it is probably appropriate that [doxxers] have some level of criminal liability or civil liability,” Krapf told CNN, but emphasized that doxxing is not a black and white situation. The activity itself can be an empowerment tool for people engaging in protests to share information about extremists to others, she explained.
Across the US, “state laws vary greatly and there is no federal statute outlawing doxxing,” Krapf told CNN, meaning “there isn’t currently one specific standard codified.”
While anyone can be doxxed, experts believe women are more likely to be targets of mass online attacks, leaks of their sensitive media, such as sexually explicit imagery that was stolen or shared without consent and unsolicited and sexualized messages.
A 2020 report by UN Women focusing on India, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and South Korea found that women experience many forms of online violence simultaneously such as trolling, doxxing and social media hacks.
A 2020 global report by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), found that online violence against women is startlingly prevalent in the 51 countries surveyed, with 45% of Generation Z and Millennial women reporting being affected, compared to 31% of Generation X women and Baby Boomers, while 85% of women surveyed overall report witnessing online violence against women. While online violence is alarmingly common globally, the study shows significant regional differences, with Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East showing at least 90% of women surveyed having been affected.
While the responsibility to prevent doxxing rests with those who would violate another’s privacy, and not with the victim, it is useful to take some preventative steps to protect yourself online.
It can help to be familiar with doxxing-related policies on the online platforms you use as well as how to report abuse more generally. Consider making it harder for people to track you online by restricting the accessibility of any information that can identify you online and offline. For example, check who can see your personal email, phone number, home addresses and other physical locations on your social media accounts.
The University of Berkeley, PEN America and Artist at Risk Connection provide thorough online privacy guides.