Why people ruin others’ lives by exposing all their data online

Doxers causes devastation by revealing targets’ sensitive information to the worst elements of the internet. Now the first study to examine doxing shows who is most affected – and a potential fix

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“I’ve spoken to people that have had websites set up in their name requesting child pornography, their bank accounts hacked and money stolen from their account, and their employer phoned and told they were alcoholics,” says Amy Binns at University of Central Lancashire. Some women have had profiles set up soliciting violent sex with strangers.

All these people were doxed – that is, someone published their personal information against their will, in a public forum intended for dissemination and abuse, instigating a torrent of attacks from strangers. “It’s incredibly scary and could result in losing your livelihood,” says Binns.

But despite many individual cases catching the public eye, up until now there has been very little research examining the scale of the problem and who is involved. A new study from the University of Illinois at Chicago and New York University changes that.

The team gathered 5,500 dox files – documents intended to disseminate stolen private information – from nearly two million files posted to the most popular websites that tend to host them. To find them, the team created an artificially intelligent tool that could automatically detect possible cases. The majority of such files include home addresses, phone numbers, information about family members, and email addresses, with many also containing usernames, passwords, and credit card information.

They found that people targeted by doxers tend to be young. The targets in these files were between 10 and 74, but with an average age of 22.

The top justification, the team found, was that the victim was perceived to have done something bad either generally, or to the doxer. “These things range from ‘you cheated on a video game’, ‘I think you are in the KKK’, or ‘you’re a child pornographer,’” says Peter Snyder at University of Illinois at Chicago, who conducted the study.

One finding that surprised them is that just 16 per cent of targets were women, and over 82 per cent were male. However, despite the clear skew towards men in the dox files, the authors say it would be wrong to conclude that men are more likely than women to be doxed: most of the targets identified in the study were identified as either hackers or gamers, both groups that tend to skew male to begin with.

This wouldn’t have caught some forms of doxing that primarily affect women. “Making a fraudulent Craigslist advert for sexual services and giving away a person’s home address tends to affect women more,” says Laura Thompson at City, University of London. These ads are often placed by abusive ex-partners.

Unfortunately, doxing seems to have the desired effect. During the period of the study, those found in the files were far more likely to shut their social media accounts or make them more private than random users.

The team hope that their tool could be used by websites in the future to spot dox files and are currently in talks to do that with pastebin.com (which has unwittingly enabled many attacks). The website actively removes reported files, but by then it is often already too late. Ideally, the company could use the tool to pre-filter documents for human verification – and then share the information with targets people to warn them.

One common attack that could be dampened is called SWAT-ing and involves phoning up the police to falsely report violence at someone’s home. If the police had a list of people who had been doxed, they could use this information to inform their response to such a call.

The study also suggests that changes to Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms had the desired effect.

The researchers split the 13-week study into two halves; six weeks in mid-2016 and then seven weeks half a year later. During the gap between the two study periods Facebook and Instagram changed the algorithms they use to show people content. The exact changes are proprietary, but the social media companies have claimed that these changes make it more likely that users will see things they will react positively to. So while abuse wouldn’t be eradicated, it would be less likely to be seen by anyone. This study may have confirmed that these efforts worked. The changes seem to have reduced the number of doxed accounts going private. “This gives us some hope that focused efforts can help lessen the impact,” says Snyder.

The study was presented at the Internet Measurement Conference in London last week.

Journal reference: Fifteen Minutes of Unwanted Fame: Detecting and Characterizing Doxing, doi:10.1145/3131365.3131385

 

 

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