Is it illegal to dox someone?
Doxing is an online activity that is happening more and more these days. What is doxing? Doxing is the practice of publishing someone's personal details --such as their phone number, home address, and other sensitive information -- on the internet making it possible for people to know their identity and typically give out a way to contact that person.
In a world where being anonymous is the impetus for bad behavior, doxing has become a popular form of online retribution, especially on social media platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, and Facebook. What happens is once a person is doxed and their personal information is public, a large number of people take action and contact the doxed person or the doxed person's place of employment.
Doxing has been used to shove many people into the public eye, including white supremacists, online trolls, female journalists and even the victims of sexual abuse.
Doxing may seem like a harmless act of reprisal, but it can end up creating serious consequences for both the victim and the perpetrator.
The United States law codes are well over 200 years old. In comparison doxing is a very recent tactic which utilizes technology in a way that American lawmakers are still catching up to. The activity is certainly ethically questionable, but regarding the law and legal repercussions, it is typically legal. What that means is it is within one's legal rights to find someone else's publicly available information and post it online. While that doxer may face a lot of derision for doing that, it doesn't break the law.
Except in some situations. (You had to know that was coming!)
There can be some situations where the activity of doxing can cross the line from online vigilante justice and become a real world criminal act.
Depending on the specific characteristics of the case, doxing may be considered one of the following:
invasion of privacy
If the personally identifiable information posted online was obtained illegally -- for example, through hacking -- there could be criminal charges in store for whoever obtained and revealed it.
The intent of the doxer may also come into play. Doxing that is meant to intimidate, threaten, harass or lead to threats against someone could lead to legal trouble.
Finally, privacy is important. If someone's personal details, be it a cell phone number or the names of family members, are obtained through a private rather than public source, the victim could have ground to file a lawsuit for invasion of privacy.
The consequences of doxing
Internet users who dox other people on social media platforms or social media websites sometimes fail to consider the long-term consequences of this action. It can seriously damage the lives of both doxer and doxed. Victims of doxing often experience online harassment, fear, humiliation and other emotional trauma. They may live in fear of someone finding their personal information online and using it to stalk, rob or even physically attack them.
Some victims who are doxed choose to pursue action against the offender in the form of civil suits; others may contact the law enforcement authorities, up to and including the FBI, in an attempt to press criminal charges. If this happens, doxers would be wise to contact a criminal defense attorney. And, fortunately, most attorneys' contact information is easily publicly available information online.
Is Doxing Illegal?
Depending on your point of view in this ongoing debate of accountability, releasing a person's identifying information on the internet might be one of the few ways to hold someone accountable for hateful actions. Doxing, however, may also be an avenue to unleashing online harassment and real-world hate upon an undeserving person or group of people.
Trying to out white supremacists who participated in political violence? You might support it. But what about a person misidentified from that action? Or what about the other side of the spectrum using the same tactics to target opponents with their own harassment?
Social engineering is all fun and games until someone's Twitter account or some other social media account from a wide variety of social media sites gets inundated with an army of trolls blindly following the crowd after some hot-button issue is stoked by a muckraker like Alex Jones or Donald Trump. Then you have non-stop phone calls, emails, threats, and abuse.
Either way, doxing has remained, thus far, a largely legal activity. But that doesn't mean doxing can't stem from or lead to a crime.
The source of information is central to determining doxing's legality. Most often, posted identifying information was obtained, if not easily or cheaply, from publicly available databases and other public resources. And that's extremely important. Information publically available, be it an IP address, a telephone number posted on a website, or any other public records are not private.
For instance, merely posting a person's photo from a public demonstration and asking for help identifying the person would not generally be illegal, according to both state and federal law. It's when you go beyond what's available publicly, and invade private information, where the legality starts to become an issue. For example, if you hacked that person's email account to post their messages or Social Security number, that would be criminal.
A good rule of thumb: If a person didn't break the law to obtain the identifying information involved, publishing the information likely wouldn't break the law either, avoiding many potential legal issues.
The intent in any doxing is for the target to experience consquences including:
fired from a job
However, if doxing is done with the intent to threaten or harass someone, or leads to threats or harassment, those actions can be illegal.
"You can post it as long as there is nothing nefarious about it," LAPD cyber crimes detective Andrew Kleinick told Daily Beast when clarifying the legality of doxing.
Kleinick was talking about the online posting of celebrities' personal information a few years back but hits on an important point: The target of the doxing could matter, as well.
While not a criminal law, most states allow invasion of privacy lawsuits for the public disclosure of private facts. A defense to such a lawsuit can be that there is a legitimate public interest in the information, a bar that is much higher for private individuals than for public figures.
Before you dox, or if you've been charged with a doxing-related crime, contact a local criminal law attorney.