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Essay: The terror of doxing in an era of social media

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  • Subject area(s): Criminology essays
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  • Published: 30 January 2022*
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  • Words: 2,594 (approx)
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Intelligence gathering has been in existence in society since throughout human history. Human beings are known to hide or conceal personal information away from unwanted access. However, the concealed personal information has always been revealed especially to the government and some private firms. The revealed information gathered is usually used by states and private firms to investigate the crime. Though personal information is not supposed to be disclosed to a third party, the recent advancement in information technology, accessing, researching and broadcasting this personally identifiable information about companies and individuals has been made easier than ever. The practice, otherwise known as doxing, has developed to become a significant vice that needs serious attention to adequately analyze the effects it poses to the unfortunate victims and to establish potential countermeasure procedures.

Issues with Doxing

The term doxing dates back to the 1990s. it was derived from the internet slang words, ‘dropping dox.’ Doxers or hackers manipulate the publicly searchable databases and social media accounts of their unsuspecting victims. The facts and figures obtained are then published in the public domain to coerce an individual into doing or parting with something that they would otherwise not surrender easily. Sometimes hackers expose one another in attempts to expose their competitors to harassment of criminal prosecution if not to show the prowess of their hacking skills. For instance, during their 2003 presentation at West Point, Adam Young and Moti Young demonstrated a different computer virus that blackmailed people differently from what was being used in traditional extortion. While other computer malware encrypted files and demanded a ramson for decryption, the two computer geeks introduced ‘Doxware’ that copied personal information from a computer and threatened to publicize it unless money was paid. Nevertheless, the vice was widely spread by an internet-based group of activists known as Anonymous .

Doxers employ a variety of tactics to reach out to their targets after gathering a substantial dossier on the individual or company: employers may be hassled into firing an individual, mobs may be sent to hold demonstrations at homes or offices of the individual. In other cases, investors may be threatened and forced to terminate their contacts and contracts with the said person or group of people. Also, politicians, journalists, and other public figures may be scared into silence, false bomb or hostage alerts may be sent out to cause disruptions by a police raid. Alternatively, hacking of financial accounts and to the most extreme cases, criminal gangs may be sent to cause direct physical injuries to the victims of even kill by assassination .

Most of the crude methods used by the doxers leave permanent marks and lasting effects in the victims’ lives and that of their family members. Physical injuries obtained during a mob attack or police raid may lead to permanent disabilities or scars that would significantly affect the self-esteem of the victim. Death may defiantly leave a family with a void that can never be filled regardless of how much effort may be made to console the family. Alternatively, if the extreme cases of direct body injuries or death did not happen, doxing may render an individual jobless and unemployable. Students may be expelled from schools permanently altering their life completely. The shame and social setback that the individuals face after their identifiable data or files are leaked may lead them to depression and cause one to be suicidal . Besides, fixing the reputation and possible identity theft that may result from leaked personal information can consume a significant amount of time, resources and efforts.

Journalists working in big entities have opened up the topic of doxing topic for critical discussion. The media personnel opine that they have the right and that it is their job to relay information to the general public especially if the individual or the group they have targeted has a controversial way of life or if their life and ideologies are different from what is considered reasonable by the society. Nonetheless, there exists no formal universal guideline with information highlighting the ethics of doxing in journalism . This remains to be a matter of ongoing debates and controversy until when rules and regulations will be put in place to define and clarify the relationship between journalism, activism, and invasion of privacy .

Doxing and Criminology

Doxing as a criminal activity can be explained by several theories that explain why human being commit a crime. First, in accordance with the Routine Activity Theory, it can be explained that doxers commit the crime because one, they are motivated, two, there is the presence of vulnerable targets and three, there exists a void in rules and protection measures . The doxers utilize these loopholes and emerge victorious in their activities.

Second, doxing can be explained using the Rational Choice Theory. The theory suggests that human being choose to perform various criminal activities after a critical evaluation of the potential risks involved against the rewards . Therefore, it can be thought that doxers analyze and still make the decision to continue with their mission since they are intellectuals who understand the law.

Third, others commit crime because they interact with other criminals . The social learning theory applies to this situation. Using modern technology to accomplish tasks is perceived to be an enjoyable activity. Therefore, people who associate with hackers yearn to learn how to penetrate firewalls and acquire information. Consequently, they end up gaining enough knowledge and skill. Eventually, the newcomers entering into the criminal world of doxing.

Acceptable Doxing

Doxing may have extremely damaging effects on individuals or groups of people. Nevertheless, some situations make it a legitimate tactic. First, payback can be a fair play. Doxing people who gain pleasure from doxing innocent individuals if acceptable and encouraged. The legal doctrine of estoppel takes care of all claims made by a victimizer-turned-victim . Similarly, it should be standard knowledge that what goes around always comes around and that no one should complain of the taste of their own medicine. With the rules of engagement set, the number of innocent persons who go through doxing should reduce due to mutually assured destruction. Alternatively, the impact of the effects of doxing would decrease due to information flooding.

Second, sometimes doxing can be used to reveal and unmask criminal groups hiding in society. Paedophiles, financial criminals, terrorists, and other individuals publicly engaging in activities that expose the public to harm should not be left to walk scot free. It is advisable to gather an informative dossier that can lead to their arrest and prosecution. Most of these criminals may be tempted to brag on social media about their achievements, and it is from such posts that one may piece together the identities of the real masterminds. This doxing is similar to unmasking an assailant and forwarding them to the police. This information should be submitted to law enforcers who are then expected to pursue a criminal investigation to add on to the information delivered to them from the efforts of community policing . Occasionally, the law enforcers may be unwilling to react to the situation due to various reasons. Consequently, the doxer may decide to use the sub-optimal option of going public hoping for extrajudicial punishment which is nobler than letting the innocent suffer in ways that one would have helped to stop.

Third, doxing can be used to effectively put in check corrupt and power-drunk politicians, leaders and government officials. These individuals abuse their powers and use public offices for their gains and those of their families. Doxers may be forced to collect damaging personal information of these thieves of public property and reveal it to relevant watchdogs or even to the citizens . The end result would be resignation, firing of being voted out of office. Alternatively, it may challenge them to redeem their actions and now serve their subjects diligently with the fear that further exploitation and abuse of office and power may have a toll on their lives and that of their families.

Countermeasures to Curb Doxing

Unfortunately, most hackers do not utilize their skills and prowess for the legitimate reasons. Some attack innocent, unsuspecting persons while others attack the legitimate targets but for personal gains. Further still, most jurisdictions lack laws defining legitimate doxing or manipulative doxing. However, the protection of innocent people from malicious activists, journalists, and technological nerds should be paramount and subject to options provided for in this test. The following are measures that can and should be used to counter malicious doxing.

To begin with, it is well known that prevention is better than the process of curing and healing. With vast information on the possibilities of doxing, internet users, especially on social media, should take caution and be tougher to dox. One should instil strong passwords and security questions on all their accounts. Additionally, people should refrain from disclosing too much of their personally identifiable information. On social media, it is worthwhile to have a limit on the kind of information that an individual post to be seen by the public. Moreover, one can employ extra measures such as hiding one’s IP address using Virtual Private Network (VPN), using non-public computers for sensitive personal businesses, deleting metadata of files before posting them, not using open public Wi-Fi for sensitive internet operations and using private registration for personal websites .

The law may have several provisions detailing and highlighting some of the cases. One may find doxers guilty of breaking specific statutes or standing orders especially about the methods used to obtain and disseminate the information. For instance, a doxer may have threatened or blackmailed a venerable member of the family of their intended target . Similarly, the doxer may have sent goons to attack the subject which violates the law. Therefore, these legal provisions should be sought after, explored and exhausted before further actions are taken. Unfortunately, the lack of exact legal guidelines in most jurisdictions makes such civil suits challenging to win or very expensive to sustain. Public outcry may then be employed to force the lawmakers to provide absolute and strict privacy laws and to propose more sombre punitive actions for doxing innocent individuals .

Even so, skilled but wicked hackers may still manage to circumnavigate the efforts and firewalls placed to lock them out. Nonetheless, as aforesaid, doxing doxers is an acceptable countermeasure to reduce the spread of the vice and its consequential effects. Social media owners should hire talented personnel to gather and compile a database with all potential and reported doxers. These hired staff should then use the information on their database to shame, ostracize, hack and expose the doxers who intended to dox other innocent individuals. The tit-for-tat approach would discourage others who planned on engaging in the practice in the future.

Lastly, official or extralegal capital punishment would serve best to countermeasure the irritating doxing menace. The proposal will receive massive support from all individuals who have been victimized by malicious doxing and all those who are opposed to doxing by all means. A general look at this countermeasure of killing someone for an action that does not directly cause the death of another may seem unproportionable. However, historians will argue that the same analogy was effectively applied in the 19th century to limit livestock theft in America and Europe . Domestic animals were vital in a homestead. The animals provided food, labor, transportation and other products for use in the family such as wool. Therefore, losing even one of them was a significant setback to the affected family. In extreme cases, the loss would render a family incapacitated of any economic survival .

For these reasons, locals would form vigilante groups that killed livestock thieves who were spared by the law enforcers of the time. For instance, in the 1880s, cattle rustling gang of eighteen men known as the Homesteaders terrorized the residents of Kansas . The sheriff in charge did not do anything to tame them which led to the farmers to have enough of it. The cattlemen told the gang members to leave the town or face the wrath of the angry ranchers. Thirteen of the Homesteaders heeded to the notice and left. Three of the remaining five were captured and killed by hanging while two escaped narrowly marking the end of largescale rustling in the region . The case study illustrates how ultraviolence was effectively used to suppress crime. It would be no different if it were applied to doxers.

As compared to the case mentioned above of the rustlers, doxing can result in the ultimate deprivation of an individual’s means of survival. Rendering a person jobless and unemployable or driving another to depression is similar to stealing their primary source of support and livelihood. The same way the rustlers did not kill by facing their victims is the same way doxers kill indirectly; a slow and agonizing death that starts with mental torture. Consequently, the 21st-century death of a doxer is equivalent to the 19th-century death of a cattle thief . Principle and proportionality and the right to human life may be overlooked, but the final achievement would be a protected economic landscape and enforced general good social norms in areas lacking a robust legal framework.

Subsequently, the fall of a few rogue doxers will spread fear of retribution for any misdeed. This window will provide the lawmakers to come up with new laws and regulations that will replace the society made capital punishment. As it happened with the Homesteaders. Maybe the world needs to persecute a handful of the most notorious doxers to and a problematic vice of doxing.

Conclusion

It would be unfortunate and not in line with the times we are living in if we would have to resolve to an extrajudicial method of fixing doxing. However, the influence of resourceful persons such as journalists, social media campaigners, activists, and hackers, who form the majority of doxers, may make a peaceful resolution improbable. They enjoy civil suit and a high bar to prosecution making the public or the affected individuals to feel cruel towards the doxers. The result would be taking actions in their (public) own hands. More so, most government officials only respond to the outcry of their citizens whenever the situation at hand causes death. For example, it is just when deaths are reported that most leaders in hunger-stricken countries start acknowledging the hunger as a disaster.

It would be better if the doxers stopped using other people’s personally identifiable information for malicious fulfilment or as political weapons. We are still at levels of doxing that can be rectified to prevent further damage. If doxers continue to expose innocent civilians, they will continue to instil hopelessness which will create more crimes in the society.

Finally, it is the responsibility of each to take care of their personal information. There are more ways of securing data and devices to at least keep away from getting exposed. It is also the role of journalists to practice ethical journalism. In particular, investigative media crew should only indulge in stories that are factual and not based on personal attacks towards individuals who hold different political, spiritual or philosophical ideologies. However, security and law enforcement agencies should be allowed and assisted in compiling a weighty dossier against criminals who pose a threat to the peace and wellbeing of the citizens. Jurisdictions and person registrars, telecommunication companies and anybody with useful information should willingly and readily provide the police or other security agents with the data. This collaboration will ensure that doxing is performed to and by the relevant agencies and that it is used for the right reasons.

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