Last week, CIA director John O. Brennan became the latest victim of what’s become a popular way to embarrass and harass people on the Internet. A hacker allegedly broke into his AOL account and published e-mails and documents found inside, many of them personal and sensitive.
It’s called doxing—sometimes doxxing—from the word “documents.” It emerged in the 1990s as a hacker revenge tactic, and has since been as a tool to harass and intimidate people, primarily women, on the Internet. Someone would threaten a woman with physical harm, or try to incite others to harm her, and publish her personal information as a way of saying “I know a lot about you—like where you live and work.” Victims of doxing talk about the fear that this tactic instills. It’s very effective, by which I mean that it’s horrible.
Brennan’s doxing was slightly different. Here, the attacker had a more political motive. He wasn’t out to intimidate Brennan; he simply wanted to embarrass him. His personal papers were dumped indiscriminately, fodder for an eager press. This doxing was a political act, and we’re seeing this kind of thing more and more.
Last year, the government of North Korea did this to Sony. Hackers the FBI believes were working for North Korea broke into the company’s networks, stole a huge amount of corporate data, and published it. This included unreleased movies, financial information, company plans, and personal e-mails. The reputational damage to the company was enormous; the company estimated the cost at $41 million.
In July, hackers stole and published sensitive documents from the cyberweapons arms manufacturer Hacking Team. That same month, different hackers did the same thing to the infidelity website Ashley Madison. In 2014, hackers broke into the iCloud accounts of over 100 celebrities and published personal photographs, most containing some nudity. In 2013, Edward Snowden doxed the NSA.
These aren’t the first instances of politically motivated doxing, but there’s a clear trend. As people realize what an effective attack this can be, and how an individual can use the tactic to do considerable damage to powerful people and institutions, we’re going to see a lot more of it.
On the Internet, attack is easier than defense. We’re living in a world where a sufficiently skilled and motivated attacker will circumvent network security. Even worse, most Internet security assumes it needs to defend against an opportunistic attacker who will attack the weakest network in order to get—for example—a pile of credit card numbers. The notion of a targeted attacker, who wants Sony or Ashley Madison or John Brennan because of what they stand for, is still new. And it’s even harder to defend against.
What this means is that we’re going to see more political doxing in the future, against both people and institutions. It’s going to be a factor in elections. It’s going to be a factor in anti-corporate activism. More people will find their personal information exposed to the world: politicians, corporate executives, celebrities, divisive and outspoken individuals.
Of course they won’t all be doxed, but some of them will. Some of them will be doxed directly, like Brennan. Some of them will be inadvertent victims of a doxing attack aimed at a company where their information is stored, like those celebrities with iPhone accounts and every customer of Ashley Madison. Regardless of the method, lots of people will have to face the publication of personal correspondence, documents, and information they would rather be private.
In the end, doxing is a tactic that the powerless can effectively use against the powerful. It can be used for whistleblowing. It can be used as a vehicle for social change. And it can be used to embarrass, harass, and intimidate. Its popularity will rise and fall on this effectiveness, especially in a world where prosecuting the doxers is so difficult.
There’s no good solution for this right now. We all have the right to privacy, and we should be free from doxing. But we’re not, and those of us who are in the public eye have no choice but to rethink our online data shadows.
This essay previously appeared on Vice Motherboard.
EDITED TO ADD: Slashdot thread.