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What is doxing (or doxxing), and is it illegal? What happens if your private information is released onto the internet by a malicious hacker or tech predator, and would you get into legal trouble if you do this to another person?
This is called doxing, and it has become a major issue in recent years. More than 3.5 billion people now have social media accounts across the world, but with a greater online presence comes greater risk. Read on to find out everything you need to know about doxing and the laws surrounding cybercrimes.
Doxing 1.01: What is Doxing?
Doxing is when a person researches a victim, collecting personal and private information about them, and releasing the information onto the internet with malicious intent.
This information may be broadcast using a forum or message board, social media, or any other means of electronic communication for internet users to see.
If you’re wondering about the origin of the term doxing, we can clear that up. The word was developed from “docs”, the abbreviation of documents. Originally termed “dropping dox”, it refers to doxing being the digital version of releasing a person’s private documents.
So, what kinds of details are released when someone is doxed?
It can be anything from a person’s name, home address, phone number, workplace, family members, and pictures, to their social security number, email address, or social media handles.
Doxing has been around since the 1990s, but it has only become a serious threat in recent years. You don’t have to be an expert hacker to find and distribute personal details on the internet anymore.
Fact check: Doxing or doxxing?
You might see both spelling variations used. Both are correct and either can be used. Doxing someone is the same as a doxxing attack.
What is the Purpose of Doxing?
You can think of doxing as a weapon; a way of attacking people online for various reasons. The act of doxing is always designed to harm the victim in some way, but the doxer could have good or evil intentions.
Sometimes it is seen as a form of vigilante justice, while other instances are undeserved attacks.
These are just some examples of different types of doxing:
- Hateful doxing
Some forms of doxing have seemingly no cause. A doxer will post private details to harm a victim at random, simply because they can.
- Exposing wrongdoing
Some ‘hacktivists’ (hackers/activists) might uncover and release private documents or information proving shady practices by a business or individual.
- Revenge doxing
Doxing a person can be used as a means of revenge. For example, you sometimes see people exposing internet trolls who have been abusing them by re-posting their messages, names, social media handles, and more.
- Identification doxing
One form of doxing is when people post pictures to identify those at events, particularly controversial events such as political and race-related rallies.
Some of these instances might have good intentions, while others are purely intended to harm.
Regardless of the original purpose of doxing, it can result in:
- Reputation damage
- Being fired from employment
- Harassment (in person and online)
- Bank fraud
- Identity theft
- Unlawful killing/suicide in extreme cases
Famous Examples of Doxing
There have been some high-profile examples of doxing over the years, including some very recent instances.
Skai Jackson, 2020: Teenage actress Skai Jackson has been exposing racist messages on social media by re-posting them with the names and handles of the posters, as well as tagging their employers or schools. She stated that she wants these cyberbullies to experience real-world consequences for their behavior.
Kyle Quinn, 2017: University professor Kyle Quinn was doxed by online vigilantes…but it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. Pictures of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville were shared online, and the teacher was wrongfully identified as one of the marchers. Digital detectives launched a harassment campaign and vowed to get him fired until the mistake was revealed.
Celebrities, 2013: A long list of major celebs, from Kim Kardashian to Donald Trump, had information hacked and posted by cyber-stalkers in 2013. Information ranging from social security numbers to bank details were revealed.
Jackson Cosko, 2018: Former government intern Jackson Cosko, 27, was arrested after publishing the home address and private telephone numbers of Senator Lindsey Graham on his Wikipedia page.
Doxing Laws: Is Doxing Illegal?
Here are the key questions…is doxing illegal, and can a doxing lawsuit be filed?
As you’ve probably guessed, this isn’t a straightforward issue. It can depend on the kind of information released, how it was obtained, the intention of the doxer, and the impact on the person being doxed.
But doxing laws can apply to people on both sides of the issue, whether you have doxed another person or have been doxed yourself.
First off, there is no direct doxing law written specifically for these attacks in United States federal law (yet – some efforts have been made to introduce such a law). However, California has a specific cybercrime law that applies to doxing, while some other stalking laws can be applied to doxing.
Doxing legal action must first be divided into civil law and criminal law.
Doxing criminal cases
State and federal laws relating to doxing in California include:
California Penal Code § 653.2 PC – Electronic Cyber Harassment
This is a state law for California that specifically targets cyber harassment, such as doxing. It makes it illegal for any person to use an electronic device, such as a computer, phone, or tablet to:
- Intentionally cause another person to fear for their safety
- Harass, torment, terrorize, or cause injury to another person with no legitimate purpose
- Make personal and identifying information or electronic messages of a harassing nature available to view or download
Violating this law can result in up to one year in county jail, and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
18 U.S. Code § 2261A (2015) – Stalking
This law runs through the federal courts and was originally written to target stalking. But the wording allows it to apply to cyberstalking and doxing.
It allows charges to be filed against anyone:
- Intending to injure, intimidate, harass, surveil, or worse, uses a computer or electronic communication service or system to:
- Place another person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury, or;
- Cause, attempt to cause, or would reasonably expect to cause substantial emotional distress to a person.
Do Some People Deserve to be Doxed?
This is where doxing turns into such a controversial topic. Some people might consider some instances of doxing to be deserved or carried out for a legitimate reason.
For example, if an online troll directs vile and sustained abuse at someone, or if a person is legitimately photographed taking part in hate rallies or illegal activities. Do those people deserve to be doxed?
It is a complicated ethical dilemma. But even doxing with a legitimate purpose can be considered a form of vigilante justice. No matter where you fall in the doxing debate, you must be aware of the law.
So, Can You Be Arrested For Doxing Someone?
Yes, you can be arrested for doxing someone. The federal and state laws listed above can both be applied to doxing cases.
In particular, the California PC 653.2 law was added specifically to target doxers and prevent this practice.
You may be arrested and charged, facing a maximum sentence of one year in county jail and a $1,000 fine. This is a misdemeanor charge, not a felony. This means that you cannot be sentenced to state prison if found guilty, but you are likely to serve at least 50% of your sentence in county custody.
Some doxing cases may also include separate charges under California privacy laws if a victim’s private information was obtained illegally before it was released.
Potential legal defenses against such doxing charges include disputing whether the act was carried out with a legitimate purpose, as well as questioning the intent of the doxer.
If a person is found guilty of doxing, it can have a major impact on their life. The current punishments in place show how seriously the law is now taking doxing, as well as related cyber crimes.
Can You Sue Someone For Doxing You?
Yes, you can sue someone for doxing you if they post your personal or private information or data online. This is where a civil lawsuit comes in.
Whether or not the authorities decide to take criminal action, you can file a doxing lawsuit through the civil courts to hold a wrongdoer accountable and potentially win compensation.
Most civil lawsuits are filed over personal injuries after incidents such as car crashes and slip-and-fall accidents. But online stalking or harassment, including having your private information and personal data broadcast, can have a very real impact and be equally damaging.
The legal requirements on the victim will depend on the circumstances of a case. But to file a civil doxing lawsuit, you must:
- Show that the victim has been injured or impacted
- Be able to locate and identify the doxers
This is not always easy. Doxers typically hide their true identity through online pseudonyms. Some are skilled at covering their tracks, while others brazenly publish other people’s information.
If you are successful in a civil doxing lawsuit, you could win compensation and punitive damages for your suffering.
How to Avoid Being Doxed
In some doxing cases, private information is secured through illegal means. Other personal information is sitting on the internet for anyone to find and distribute. The internet is not as secure as many people think it is, and it can be possible to access private information.
The best ways to avoid being doxed include:
- Set your social media profiles to private.
- Be wary of the details you share on social media and elsewhere online.
- Use a VPN to hide your IP address, as well as antivirus software to protect your devices.
- Create strong and secure passwords to prevent unauthorized access.
- Use search engines to find any unwanted information about yourself in the public forum.
- Investigate data brokers that may be selling your information.
Being doxed, or doxing another person, can be life-altering. The doxing debate is also controversial; some people believe doxing should be allowed, especially when it involves exposing wrongdoers and bad behavior.
No matter what side of the debate you are on, you need to know your rights, as well as the legal ramifications of posting another person’s information online.