Credit: AJ Duncan

Doxxing – A 21st Century Crime

By Katie McKay

As technology progresses, so do criminals. What is doxxing and how to avoid becoming its victim. 

Anyone could be a victim of doxing – a mass cyber-attack in which people share your personal information online. This often follows controversy on social media, and usually results in intense bullying and threats. What can we do to change society’s attitudes on the misuse of social media, and is it possible to protect ourselves against such threats?

Doxxing is the act of publishing private information about someone as a form of punishment or revenge. Revealing documents (docs or dox) online can include personal information such as a person’s home address, real name, children’s names, phone numbers and email address. The aim of doxxing is usually to distress and panic an individual. In the Merriam Webster Online survey, 17% of women said their personal details had been shared online. In the UK, doxxing is illegal, and there are particular laws against threats of violence against women.

When doxxing targets women much more often than it does men, is that an example of misogyny in the 21st century? While many men are also victims of doxxing, women are subject to sexually explicit forms of doxxing much more commonly than men. The creation of social media and the internet can be used for good, but it often reveals a nastier side of humanity. As a form of doxxing, many female victims receive rape and death threats. Social media can be used for horrible purposes, and women are often at the centre of this. This begs the question – should social media companies be doing more to protect individuals, and particularly women?

Doxxing may sound like something that only happens to strangers on the internet, but it really can happen to anyone. Doctor Shelby Judge, PhD graduate and now tutor in English Literature at the University of Glasgow found herself victim to an online bombardment in late 2019. Doctor Judge tweeted “Mr. Mansplain #EverydaySexism” regarding a Mr. Men book ‘Mr. Clever.’ She was asked to give a comment for an interview in The Telegraph – the next day the story was picked up by The Daily Mail. Shelby was branded a “snowflake, naive child, feminist idiot” and much more. She received thousands of rape and death threats online, and even had people sending her photos of themselves outside the English department at Glasgow. Doctor Judge’s full experience with doxxing can be read on her blog ‘The Shelbiad’ online. 

Rebecca Scheffler (a pseudonym) was subjected to a bombardment of graphic sexual messages and threats after a stranger leaked her personal information on a Craigslist advert. I got doxxed by a stranger — and the online harassment quickly took over my life – Vox Two weeks earlier, she had written an article about equality for individuals with disfigurements in a national paper. Scheffler describes four months of terror at the prospect of being raped every time she left her house. This harassment simply followed writing a totally unrelated article in a newspaper. It is clear that anyone can be unlucky enough to become a victim of doxxing – so what can be done to protect us?

Many people are calling for social media companies to be doing more to protect people from both having their information leaked and forms of cyber bullying. Facebook had several scandals with data breaches between 2013 and 2021. Data was illegally taken from around 87 million profiles. Speculation was wide that the stolen data was used to influence political advertising around the 2015 US Presidential Elections and the Brexit referendum of 2016. The responsibility for protecting our data and therefore keeping users safe from doxxing is perhaps not taken as seriously as it should be by social media companies – perhaps the fault lies with the provider themselves. Or could consumers be doing more to protect themselves?

While doxxing is a malicious and targeted attack, there are several measures social media users can take to limit the possibility of becoming a victim. Using a virtual private network (VPN) and limiting personal information shared online are easy measures to take. Installing anti-virus software and changing passwords regularly are also positive steps to take to avoid doxxing. Although you could still find yourself as a victim of doxxing, these steps make it much less likely, and should usually work to keep yourself safe.

Doxxing is not limited to social media – in recent years, newspapers have been guilty of revealing personal information about innocent people. At the end of 2018, hundreds of flights were cancelled from Gatwick Airport near London, following reports of drone sightings near the runway. Sussex Police arrested two individuals, who were cleared two days later and released without charge. Meanwhile, the couple were identified as Elaine and Paul Gait, and pictured in ‘The Mail on Sunday’ under the headline; ‘Are these the morons who ruined Christmas?’. The couple were awarded £200,000 two and a half years later but described the ordeal as a ‘terrible episode’. These innocent people were subjected to online attacks, as well as a press campaign by multiple newspapers. The reveal of their information could have ruined their lives – and for many it does.

Doxxing ruins lives – social media companies should be taking more accountability and action to make the internet a safer place. Traditional news outlets also have a responsibility to bear for publishing information about innocent people. Ultimately, doxxing is a modern-day crime, and something we must evolve ourselves to be wary of. While emphasis for such vicious crimes always lie with the perpetrator, there are easy steps that can be taken to avoid becoming a victim of doxxing. Modern inventions such as the internet come with their downfalls – and doxxing is a symptom of an evolving society. As the power of the internet grows, so too does the power of criminals – something we may unfortunately need to be aware of forever. 


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