Doxing: Is It A Violation of Privacy Laws?

In the last article, we ended our comments with anonymous online speech and the related complications.  However, unmentioned before is an act that’s generally prohibited on websites, and indeed, it will probably be prohibited pursuant to state, federal, or international laws.  This is “doxing” which is a practice of taking another individual’s personal information – e.g., name, address, telephone, photographs or other confidential information and publishing it online without authorization.  So, how do doxers do it? How can you protect yourself? What are the remedies, if any?

What is doxing?

Doxing (a/k/a “doxxing”) is a common aspect of activism and vigilantism that occurs online.  Frighteningly, this action does not require an individual to necessarily perform an illegal act to “dox” a person. Rather, it relies on perseverance and the type of information is available to the general public.

As an example, we’ll have two individuals: Anne and Bob. Anne, in an attempt to embarrass Bob, searches his name on Google, Facebook, and several other public record websites. Anne then collects all the information she has about him.  Then, she posts it elsewhere and encourages individuals to harass Bob through social media websites, email, or phone calls.

So, in essence, this type of conduct would be doxing someone else. However, this is just a simple example. Any information available publicly online could be added when people are doxed.  For example, from a digital photo of someone’s face, individuals could extrapolate and attempt to locate, identify, and target the alleged perpetrators. This occurred in part with the Boston Marathon bombing where an individual was wrongly named as the perpetrator.

Someone like Bob might wonder, “how can I avoid being doxed?” Yet, there is no good way to avoid the threat of doxing entirely.  To do so, one would need to avoid not just social media, but potentially emails, public events, or online transactions.  However, the risks can be mitigated. First, it may be done through basic advertising and minding public opinion and outcry.  Second, it may be done through ensuring the protection of Facebook and Twitter accounts which enable functions to protect content and disable ways to search for an account, such as searching by a cell phone number.

How can you recover from doxing?

In short, yes you may be able to recover from doxing.  It could constitute a general tort like civil harassment or stalking, or intrusion upon seclusion, although other statutory remedies are scarce.  In some cases, defamation claims could be pursued by the victim. This would apply in cases where, upon researching an image, a person wrongfully identifies and links another individual to a disastrous event (e.g., Boston Marathon bombing).

On a related note, there is at least one law prohibiting disclosure of publicly-available private information. As of now, in California, there is a law designed to fight age discrimination in the entertainment industry which prohibits certain websites from reporting an actor’s age.  The law is called AB 1687.  While this is not extreme as doxing, but it could set a precedent to avoid disclosing irrelevant facts that are publicly available and potentially private in nature.

At our law firm, we assist clients with legal issues related to internet, technology, and cyberspace laws. Please contact us to set up an initial consultation.