by Marc Larson and Olga Polishchuk
Recently, a hacker released the personal information of 29,000 federal employees – twenty thousand from the Department of Justice and 9,000 from Homeland Security – which included names, job titles, phone numbers, and email addresses. Incidents like this, including the doxing of CIA director John Brennan by a hacktivism collective, prompted the FBI to issue a warning to law enforcement and high-profile public officials indicating they could be targeted by hacktivists, who have increasingly adopted doxing as a form of social justice. The advisory notes that such doxing attacks are likely to continue with possible targeting of family members, and urges officers and public figures to be vigilant about their social media activities and password security.
The prevalence of personal information online, as well as users’ propensity to over-share through social media has led to an increase in ‘doxing’ – the process of gathering and posting an individual’s personal information without his or her permission. This information can include names, ages, emails, addresses, phone numbers, photographs, and his or her overall pattern of life, all of which can be found via publicly available sources.
While doxing is nothing new, the proliferation of social media has aided in it becoming a common tactic for of harassment, especially towards high-profile individuals. Using the right techniques and sources, including search engines, social networking sites, and data aggregators, threat actors no longer need complex social engineering schemes or malware attacks to get the information they want about their targets. Instead, they can determine a wealth of personal information on executives and their family members by examining their online footprints.
While some individuals perform doxing out of general curiosity about a person or company, others have more nefarious motives. This includes revenge, extortion, or embarrassment, all of which can be achieved by exposing the sensitive information that they have gathered about the person or company. If the doxed information includes a person’s social activities, medical history, sexual preference, or other private information, there could be a serious threat to the health, livelihood, and career of the target.
Often doxing does not only affect the targeted individual, but also their families, including the names and ages of children, school, and spousal information. This is seen with leaders of large corporations and politicians that support controversial issues. This information is typically posted to anonymous data-pasting sites such as Pastebin, which makes determining who posted the data nearly impossible.
Hacktivists have increasingly adopted doxing as a form of social justice. In 2015, vigilantes and hacktivists doxed Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who shot Cecil the lion; Brian Encinia, the Texas police officer who arrested Sandra Bland; and more than 300 employees of Planned Parenthood. Hacktivists even attempted to dox the leaders of the Islamic State. All of these incidents were a direct reaction to public event where individuals feel that a social issue was violated.
Strictly speaking, the legality of doxing has not been universally established. Some states have moved to criminalize doxing under certain circumstances, specifically if the threat actor outlines the physical location of any individual and voices the intent to harm, shame, stalk, humiliate, endanger, or otherwise compromise the safety and security of said target. These states argue that the person is in a position of risk and the threat actor is likely in violation of state-level stalking laws.
Additionally, doxing a government employee falls under the federal conspiracy law and is seen as a federal offense. A bill proposed in the Utah State House of Representatives in February 2016, seeks to outlaw doxing and attach a six-month prison sentence to it. However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that the planned law’s language is so broad it would target free speech.
While completely eliminating your online exposure in the current digital age is nearly impossible, there are steps you can take to minimize your risk online. The LookingGlass Special Investigations Unit specifically recommends using social media with caution, avoiding over-sharing, and adhering to strong password security practices:
- Use strong passwords (avoid clichés like birth dates)
- Change passwords often
- Do not use the same credentials on more than one account and never rotate or reuse old passwords
- Do not use work emails for your social media accounts
- Use privacy settings on social networking sites to allow only friends or connections to view the account’s content
- If possible, limit your personal postings on media sites and carefully consider your comments
- Disable geo-tagging features on mobile devices
- Pay close attention to messages containing attachments or links to other websites; they may be infected