Doxxing, which forms from a combination of the words dropping and documents, is used to describe the malicious act of collecting private and personal information and releasing it to the public. The information usually includes private addresses and phone numbers, as well as national identity numbers, such as a person’s social security number, and other sensitive information, like photos and credit reports.
The term was originally used within certain internet circles, but more recently has gone mainstream and popular news publications sometimes even use the phrase to describe in-depth reporting or the exposure of an anonymous online personality.
The first thing that’s important to understand about doxxing is that it not necessarily illegal. This is a frightening concept considering a dox often includes the revealing of very personal details of a person’s life to the general public. Despite it not being an outright crime to “dox” someone, many consider it unethical, and depending on how the information is retrieved and distributed, there could be legal consequences.
High Profile Victims of Doxxing
The act of doxxing gets the most attention when it happens to someone already in the public eye. Obviously, the dox doesn’t reveal a person’s already-public identity, but it does reveal sensitive personal information. For instance, Michelle Obama’s social security number was posted online. Beyonce’s address was supposedly revealed by a doxxer. Other celebrities who were victims of doxxing include Mel Gibson, Donald Trump, Britney Spears, and Hillary Clinton.
When Doxxing is a Crime
One of the reasons why doxxing isn’t directly illegal is because a lot of the information revealed is already available online. Doxxers simply dig deeper than most people are willing or able to in order to find it. According to one LAPD cyber crimes detective, revealing the “personal” information of a celebrity is not illegal, except when the information is used to threaten someone, or is used to steal his or her identity or infiltrate private email accounts.
Experts familiar with cyber crime trends believe doxxing is fairly commonplace, especially when it involves celebrities. Finding someone’s phone number or address is easy and in some cases, the only effort needed is to pay a fee to an online provider with the information. Social security information and credit reports are a little harder to gain access to, but doing so is possible if someone knows where to look – or is able to gain access to information via the credit reporting agencies – an act that is illegal.
Recently, a man named Christopher Chaney was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he hacked into the email accounts of celebrities Mila Kunis and Scarlett Johansson. Chaney put together a bunch of readily available clues. He used celebrity magazines and websites to gather information including mother’s maiden names and pet names, which enabled him to sign into Google, Apple, and Yahoo email accounts with ease.
Chaney’s crimes occurred after he gained access, when he proceeded to leak nude photos from the private accounts of the celebs. By the time he was arrested, Chaney had managed to guess passwords for nearly 50 celebrities. He was convicted on charges of identity theft, wiretapping, and unauthorized access and damage to protected computers.
According to cyber crimes experts, the line between legal doxxing and criminal doxxing is actually quite clear: any information obtained cannot be used for financial gain, nor can you use the information to impersonate someone. And if you accessed the information through illegal means, you’ve committed a crime and all actions that follow are also crimes. Posting personal information, obtained legally, in and of itself is perfectly legal.
So what should you do if you are accused of illegal doxxing? Since doxxing activities and the lines that define what’s legal and illegal are relatively new, it’s important for you to seek the assistance of an attorney. Chances are if you believe you didn’t break any laws by revealing the identity or private information of an individual, you are right – but law enforcement can still use your actions against you. You need to take action to protect yourself and ensure you are not accused of committing a crime when you did nothing illegal – even if you stepped over the line ethically.