The Australian government has accelerated its plans to criminalize doxing, drawing attention to the dangers of releasing individuals’ private information to the public. This response comes after the public release of a WhatsApp group’s private chat logs, which included almost 600 names of Australian Jewish creative artists discussing the Israel-Hamas war. Some of the individuals whose information was leaked have reported harassment, death threats, and the need to go into hiding.
While waiting for new penalties for doxing under the federal Privacy Act review, it is important to understand what doxing is and the harm it can cause. There are also steps that can be taken to minimize the risk.
Doxing refers to the unauthorized release of private information online without the user’s consent. This includes sensitive details such as names, addresses, employment information, medical or financial records, and names of family members. It originated as a way to unmask anonymous users, trolls, and those using hate speech under pseudonyms. However, it has now become a tool for online abuse, harassment, hate speech, and adversarial politics. It often arises from online arguments or polarized public opinions.
Doxing is increasingly common, with approximately 4% of Americans reporting having been doxed, according to SafeHome.org. While it is considered a crime in some countries like the Netherlands and South Korea, privacy laws in Australia have not yet caught up.
The harm caused by doxing is significant. It dehumanizes individuals by stripping them of their agency to control what personal information is shared with the public. This puts people at risk of physical threats and violence, particularly in heated public disagreements. Doxing also damages the digital ecosystem by limiting people’s ability to freely participate in public or private debates through social media.
In addition to the potential inconvenience, doxing is often used to shame or humiliate individuals for their private views, which can have negative effects on their mental health and wellbeing. It can also impact employment, especially for individuals whose employers require them to keep their attitudes, politics, affiliations, and views private. Women, including those using dating apps or experiencing family violence, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of doxing. In some cases, children and family members have been threatened due to the doxing of a high-profile relative. Doxing also oversimplifies a person’s affiliations or attitudes, reducing them to stereotypes or participants in a group conspiracy.
To protect oneself from doxing, stronger laws and platform interventions are necessary. Punishments for perpetrators, such as criminal penalties and deactivation of social media accounts for repeat offenders, may help deter such behavior. However, education about the risks and harms of doxing is crucial. Individuals can also take steps to protect themselves without completely withdrawing from social media, such as avoiding sharing personal information, restricting geo-location settings, refraining from sharing employment details on public sites unrelated to work, being cautious about adding unknown individuals on social media, temporarily shutting down or locking public profiles during heated online arguments, and avoiding engaging with haters who may try to harm them.
Hosts of private online groups should be vigilant about who joins their groups and avoid accepting members solely to increase the group’s size. They should implement measures to screen new members and keep out those with malicious intentions. Employers who require their staff to have online profiles or engage with the public should provide information and strategies for doing so safely. Immediate support should also be provided to staff members who have been doxed.
As the use of digital platforms continues to surge, stronger global efforts are needed to protect human rights online.