Doxing—the public posting of private or sensitive information—is a tactic used by online harassers who wish to intimidate targets and make them vulnerable to additional attacks.
Individual trolls or mobs of anonymous attackers might publish a target’s address, phone number, place of work, the name of their child’s elementary school, or any other personal information they’re able to find. While some of this information may be publicly available through online databases or websites, it’s usually an online harasser’s intention to broadcast this information to a larger audience in order to threaten, intimidate, or escalate abuse against a target.
Writers and journalists who write about controversial political topics are particularly vulnerable to doxing. Luckily, there are steps you can take to protect certain kinds of information from being doxed.
- If possible, establish separate email accounts for separate purposes. This can end up being a lot of information to juggle, but if you’re up to the task, maintaining distinct email addresses can help protect your personal contact information from falling into the wrong hands. Consider using a private email address to which no one else has access for your social media accounts. If your primary email address is tied to a specific company or publication, use this email address exclusively for professional correspondence and keep your personal correspondence separate. If you’re an emerging writer with a website that posts your contact info for potential agents and publishers, consider creating an email account that is specifically maintained for this purpose. When possible, refrain from including any identifying information in your email addresses, including your name, ethnicity, age, religion, location, gender, sexual orientation, or interests.
- Carefully review all privacy options offered by the messaging and social networking platforms you use. Most social media and email services allow you some control over what others can and cannot see online. Facebook’s Help Center, for example, walks you through the options available for hiding certain information from anyone outside your network. For guidance on how to tighten your privacy options everywhere, check out Security Planner, developed by the tech geniuses at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.
- Be your own personal content editor. Consider when and where you give out personal information online. Keep in mind that when you sign an online petition, the website owner could potentially choose to publish your information. Review all text in your tweets, Facebook messages, Instagram posts, etc. before you publish. Is there any personally identifying information about your location? Your contact information? Your loved ones? If you feel vulnerable to an online attack, it’s worth editing the text. Take care not to publish photographs and messages that an online harasser could use against you at a later date.
- Set up a Google phone number. Use this number as your primary phone number in order to protect your personal phone number. (You’ll be able to forward all calls to your personal device.) For an extra layer of security, set up this secondary phone number through a dummy account.
- Google yourself and set up Google alerts. Try googling your full name, your phone number, your home address, and other private data and see what’s floating around online. Better yet, set up Google alerts for that private data so you can see when and where it crops up online.
- Use a “people finder” database to find out what information about you already exists online. Look yourself up on one of the websites below. Most of these sites have the option to remove information through formal request. You can do this one of two ways. You can check these databases individually and request to be removed. Below we list a few of the key sites, but you can find comprehensive listings via stopdatamining.me and Motherboard’s handy masterlist. You’ll have to get into the habit of checking these databases regularly, because your information can be republished even after it has been removed.
- Spokeo (to remove listing: https://www.spokeo.com/optout)
- AnyWho (to remove listing: https://www.anywho.com/help/privacy)
- Intelius (to remove listing: https://www.intelius.com/optout)
- Whitepages (to remove listing: https://support.whitepages.com/hc/en-us/articles/115010106908-How-do-I-edit-or-remove-a-personal-listing)
Another option is to pay for a service — such as Delete.me and PrivacyDuck — that combs the web, scrubbing your information. To learn what to expect when you use one of these services, check out this helpful review from OnlineSoS.
Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to prevent data-broker sites from collecting your personal information in the first place. TrollBusters and Feminist Frequency’s Online Harassment Guide provide additional information about how to scrub your data. You can also add your name to the National Do Not Call Registry.
- Disable geolocation settings. You may sleep better at night knowing that people who follow your social media accounts can’t necessarily track where you are on any given day.
- Consider using a pseudonym. For many writers and journalists, this may not be an option—your good name may well be your bread and butter, or you may take pride in associating your name with your published writing (as you should!). But if you have the flexibility or desire to use a pseudonym when publishing an article you know could be subjected to hateful online backlash—especially if you’re a writer just starting out in your career or undertaking a project unrelated to your everyday professional life—a nom de plume can save you from being targeted by more severe forms of online harassment while still ensuring that the public has access to your writing. This Gender and Tech Resources Guide by GenderIT.org offers additional guidance on this subject.
- Remember: Your family and friends may be exposed to a risk of doxing as well. If you believe you’re at risk for becoming a target of doxing, it can help to have a conversation with loved ones about their internet usage and what information they reveal about themselves online. High-profile targets of doxing can end up inadvertently exposing family members to potential episodes of doxing as well, especially if they’re a writer who covers a particularly controversial beat. (Reporters who cover white supremacy, for example, have increasingly found their families vulnerable to online abuse.)