The World Wide Web has changed a lot over the years, but there’s one immutable thing about it that we often take for granted: our ability to be anonymous online.
In fact, anonymity was one of the main draws of the web from day one. Whether you’re watching videos, sending emails, or posting in a public forum, you can keep your real name and identity secret online. On the Internet, you can’t trust that anyone actually is who they say they are.
Anonymity has a long and distinguished history, and online anonymity has many benefits too.
In the information age, anonymity is more important than ever. Before the internet, it was much easier to disappear or assume a new identity. In cases like that of Martin Guerre, a peasant in 16th century France, a person could pass themselves off as another for years without anyone being able to prove otherwise. Officials didn’t have technology like fingerprinting or DNA, centralized records or ID cards.
These days, disappearing or assuming someone else’s identity is much more difficult. It’s almost impossible to stay completely off the grid. There are records of everything we do and everywhere we go.
The gathering of all this data makes guarding our personal privacy very important. Being able to visit websites, do research, read articles, or send messages to friends without anyone prying into your privacy is an important feature of the internet and a basic right that we all should protect.
But although privacy and anonymity are important features of the internet, they can also have a dark side.
As anyone who has ever browsed YouTube comments has realized, the cloak of anonymity can also bring out the worst in people. When there’s no fear of reprisal or consequence, some are quick to unleash our inner bully. Anonymity is a huge factor in cyber bullying. It’s much easier to be cruel if you don’t have to face the pain of your victims or suffer any consequences because no one knows who you are.
Some have tried to fight this effect by requiring users to use their real names online, but their efforts for accountability have their own drawbacks. Google found this when the firm attempted to curb bullying with a real name policy on Google Plus in 2011. Those who had valid reasons for not using their real names – such as activists in countries that censor free speech, survivors of stalking or abuse, or people who are LGBT – found that their accounts were summarily deleted. After the resulting backlash, they finally changed their policy in 2014, allowing users to use whatever names or pseudonyms they wished.
Despite its drawbacks, anonymity remains a powerful allure of online interaction and a necessity for many.
And that’s why tearing down a person’s anonymity has become one of the most powerful online weapons available, and the only way you can really hurt someone from thousands of miles away.
The act of revealing identifying information about someone online — their real name, address, workplace, phone number, or other identifying information — is known as doxing (also spelled “doxxing”). The word evolved from the phrase “dropping dox;” hacker slang referring to documents that identify an anonymous person online.
Doxing isn’t usually illegal, though it does violate many sites’ terms of service and may result in a ban. Depending on your jurisdiction, it may also be illegal under laws designed to fight stalking, harassment, threats, etc. It also depends on the specific information revealed: While outing someone’s real name might not get you into much trouble, revealing their home address or phone number might be a much more serious offense.
Doxing can be easy if you know your way around a search engine. A basic web search for someone’s username or profile photo can often turn up other accounts online, where they may have let more personal information slip. Doxing can happen to anyone — just take a look at the many famous examples below.
If you value your anonymity online, and don’t want the people you interact with online suddenly knocking on your door IRL, here's how to protect yourself.
Download this infographic.