by Miles Klee
Privacy is power. Rip that veil away and you make someone vulnerable to harassment, blackmail, physical violence, or even campaigns of remote torture that can last for years. This is the defining tenet of a practice known as doxxing, sometimes spelled with just one x, which uses information to destroy peace of mind. The term derives from ‘90s hackers who took revenge on one another by posting sensitive personal documents (or “docs”) that robbed the victim of their anonymity, exposing them to further attacks.
These days, white supremacists rank among the most popular targets. As photos from their rallies in Charlottesville and elsewhere circulate social media, armchair detectives attempt to identify and shame select individuals, often with no other lead than a face. When names go public, these people tend to at least lose their jobs, though the consequences don’t always end there. One Charlottesville marcher, Peter Tefft, was disowned by his family. Another, 21-year-old Jerrod Kuhn, was distraught to learn that an anti-fascist group out of Rochester, New York, had plastered hundreds of fliers outing him as a neo-Nazi around the nearby town of Honeoye Falls, where he lives. He claims he’s received death threats, though Peter Berkman, a representative of the antifa organization, says that they have “never at any point suggested that we’re calling for really any action against [Kuhn] or anyone he’s associated with.”
Immediately you can see the Pandora’s-box problem with doxxing as a tactic of righteous resistance: Once a person’s identity and affiliations are out there, you have no control over what other people do with that knowledge. That’s why the old-school doxxers were also given to extortion by threatening to reveal sensitive, hard-to-get phone numbers and home addresses instead of simply throwing them to the mob — in which case there’s no incentive to meet demands. When the information is summarily released without negotiation, it’s a clear invitation to the target’s enemies: Do your worst. Abortion providers, for example, struggle to prevent anti-choice elements from disseminating their personal data online, an implicit encouragement of violence, and have actually fought proposed legislation that mandates such disclosures.
Between the abortion battle, stories of people exposed for being trans or an undocumented immigrant or a sexual assault accuser, and the legacy of Gamergate — which saw anti-feminist trolls place hoax calls that sent SWAT teams to their critics’ homes — doxxing would seem a right-wing strategy firmly in step with the McCarthyist witch hunts of the 1950s.
But two factors, lately entwined by the fire of Charlottesville, speak to the left’s growing interest. The first is a well-publicized effort by the hacker collective Anonymous, in the midst of the Ferguson protests, to reveal the official rosters of the Ku Klux Klan — which some may forget was a colossal failure of bad intel and worse technique. The second is a persistent blurring of the boundary between doxxing and journalistic investigation: Many had their introduction to the doxxing concept when Newsweek controversially reportedthat the unknown inventor of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin was Satoshi Nakamoto, destroying a deliberate secrecy, and this officially launched the question of how far a magazine can push the privilege…