Is 'Doxxing' the Future of Political Protest?
Last week an adjunct faculty member at New York University made headlines when he used LinkedIn to compile and release a database of more than 1,500 ICE employees while calling for those opposed to the Trump administration’s immigration policies to do as they pleased with it. While Twitter, Medium, GitHub and other sites deleted the material as violations of their harassment policies, the database went viral in activist circles.
This is not the first time LinkedIn has been used to compile a database of government employees. In 2015, transparency activists managed to compile a database of more than 27,000 U.S. intelligence personnel simply by keyword searching LinkedIn. Those researchers even went a step further, demonstrating that it was relatively easy to track down the employees’ personal Facebook pages to find photographs of them and identify their friends and family.
What makes the Immigration and Customs Enforcement list so different is the context in which it was shared: to harass and intimidate – a practice known as doxxing -- rather than to research government secrecy. Almost immediately, the list made the rounds among activists, with calls for everything from identifying employees’ home addresses and phone numbers to banning them from stores – and even kidnapping or harming their children.
Enabling such behavior is the incredible volume of personal and professional information that Americans post to the web each day, from detailing our work history on LinkedIn and posting our children’s pictures to listing our friends on Facebook and summarizing our political views on Twitter. Details that we once would never dream of disclosing to random strangers we now transmit into the ether without ever contemplating the consequences.
From a purely technical standpoint, the data dump compiled by the NYU researcher was relatively unsophisticated and contained just under 1,600 of ICE’s more than 20,000 employees. It raised the question of what kinds of ICE employees are most likely to be found in a LinkedIn search. The job hunting site is far more likely to contain profiles of administrative and office workers than it is agents deployed to the field. It is unclear how publicizing photographs of ICE’s chief technology officer at home will possibility facilitate changes to immigration policy.
It does, however, portend a brave new world in which civil protest is far more personal than the sign-holding marches through downtown of the past. Why stand on a street corner being ignored when you can stand on the front lawn of individual employees who are powerless to stop you from livestreaming through their windows?
Today, it is easy to compile a list of government officials and employees, locate their personal and professional social media accounts, get their home addresses, perhaps even buy their real-time cellphone locations to follow them around town. From this you can readily compile a list of their friends and family, find out what schools and day-care facilities their children go to, what restaurants or coffee shops they are likely to frequent, the clubs they belong to, even those embarrassing photographs of a night out when they were 16.
Through the power of the web this information can be instantly circulated to the globe, mobilizing armies of volunteers to harass and intimidate.
In the case of the NYU researcher, GitHub disabled access to the original dataset, but left the rest of his account intact. Medium initially suspended his account but appears to have reinstated it minus any posts. Twitter has deleted some posts linking to the dataset, including an account that was tweeting the contents of the list, but left others intact and took no visible action against the researcher’s account. It is notable that despite strict policies on harassment, Twitter did not suspend the researcher and has allowed myriad links to mirrors of the dataset circulate on its platform.
Given the researcher’s academic affiliation, I asked NYU for comment on whether it viewed the dataset and the context in which it was released as a violation of the university’s harassment policies even if it was produced on his own time, but I received no response. Activists on all sides have long used the publication of personal information as a form of harassment. What makes the NYU case so troubling is that it is a university adjunct professor who created and distributed the list for the purposes of protest rather than research.
This raises the question of how universities define “harassment” in the digital age. Imagine a student, upset with the political views of her professors, who compiled a spreadsheet of their LinkedIn profiles and posted it to social media along with commentary demonizing them and asking others to use the information to stop them. If activists then used the spreadsheet to track down home addresses and phone numbers and make countless public threats of violence and harassment against those faculty, including threats against their children, would university officials consider the student’s actions to be protected freedom of expression or would they label them a violation of their policies on harassment?
Meanwhile, it was not just faculty and activists using personal information as a tool for harassment last week. Univision-owned Splinter News published White House adviser Stephen Miller’s personal cellphone number on Wednesday, encouraging its readers to call him. Twitter moved to rapidly suspend accounts sharing the number or linking to the original article, but not before the number had circulated so widely that he was forced to change phone numbers.
This increasingly blurred line between journalism and activism risks further undermining the public’s precarious trust in the idea of an impartial media. It also raises the question of what happens when a faculty member or journalist publishes a phone number that is then used to “swat” that person. Could they be held responsible for any injuries or deaths that result or were they merely performing a “public service”?
Putting this all together, it is worth remembering that the Obama campaign pioneered the mass harvesting and mining of Facebook data for political campaigning and that this technique was then honed by the Trump campaign. As faculty and journalists help normalize the publication of personal information as a form of protest, how might this latest escalation change the political landscape in ways we cannot yet imagine?