Doxing: An Etymology

Everything you always wanted to know about revealing some formerly anonymous person's identity on the Internet (but were afraid to ask)
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Know Your Meme

Today, as it made its return as a print publication, Newsweek published a blockbuster story: It unveiled the identity of the founder of Bitcoin.

This was a big deal. That founder, after all, had long been an enigma. It's been—in nerdier circles—something of a parlor game to speculate about who he or she might be. The writers of the show The Good Wife even adopted the mystery for several episodes' plot lines. In her Newsweek story, the writer Leah McGrath Goodman—via sleuthing largely conducted through searches of public records—revealed the Bitcoin founder's name. And his home address. 

One might say (and, today, many have been saying) that ... she doxed himGoodman, for her story, sought out personal information about an anonymous Internet character. She used that information to determine that character's extra-Internet identity. She then publicized that character's extra-Internet identity. On the Internet. 

A word on the definition

"Dox" generally has a negative connotation—not only because it's seen to violate someone's privacy, but also because it's often used as a kind of retaliation mechanism in online discussions. 

A word on the etymology

"Doxing" derives—according to Know Your Meme, which knows of such things—from the word "docs." It refers to the fact that, often, it is documents (public or not) that lead to a formerly anonymous person's identity being revealed. 

The term was first used (again, according to Know Your Meme) by early computer hackers as a simple shorthand of the word "documents." In the 1990s, on the discussion board Usenet, people began the practice of posting fellow users' personal information—PI, they called it, because Usenet—as a retaliation mechanism during arguments. (So, if I were sockpuppet2014 on Usenet, and you got mad at me for some reason ... you might reveal to everyone that sockpuppet2014 is, IRL, Megan Garber. You jerk.) 

The joining of these two things—the term "dox" applied to identity-revelation—seems to date back to the mid-2000s. And the term had become popularized and widely understood—in the geek world, at least—by the late 2000s. In 2008, the term got an entry—"personal information about people on the Internet"—on Urban Dictionary. In 2011, it was added to Wikitionary. That same year also saw the launch of Doxbin, a TOR site that hosts files containing personal information "on specific people as well as groups of people." Around the same time, the hacker collective Anonymous had adopted doxing as a "harassment tactic." 

A word on the history

Doxing, as a practice, has sometimes carried legal implications. In 1999, a Seattle court found Scott Abraham, the owner of the Usenet newsgroup rec.skiing.alpine, guilty of sharing personal information about other posters. He  was banned from the group.

Usually, though, doxing is simply considered—by the techies who use the term—extremely bad form. Late last year, a Buzzfeed reporter tried to dox @darth, mystery Photoshopper and general spreader of Internet delights. A severe backlash ensued. On the Internet, many believe, if you have taken pains to maintain your anonymity ... that anonymity is sacred. 

A word on the controversy

This brings us to one of the most interesting things about "doxing," though: the total variation in how people understand its meaning. For journalists, after all, the practices that might be labeled 'doxing' are generally seen as a good thing. At journalism's core, it's making previously unknown information public. It's taking a secret and making that secret public. It can be the stuff of long-form narrative, the stuff that wins you Pulitzers. 

Compare that to the reaction to the Newsweek story on reddit. Poynter's Andrew Beaujon, poking around the link-sharing site, found some nice examples of the ethic at work on its platform.

Like this: “[D]oxxing people is apparently fine if you are a 'journalist.'"

And this: "Well, yeah, sorry Reddit’s rules don’t apply to the real world in that regard, they never really have." 

And this:

Can anyone here locate the address of one Leah McGrath Goodman – perhaps we should post her address, license plate and picture of her home, so people can come and comment on the article?” “if you can please post it here; She probably can’t wait for people to knock on her door.. I mean obviously – she doesn’t care about privacy. 

The lines, as often happens, are not clear-cut. It's not that journalists are always pro-doxing, or that redditors are always anti-. Even some redditors, after all, applauded the Gawker reporter Adrian Chen's outing of Violentacrez, "the biggest troll on the Internet." And journalists, for their part, have a long tradition of careful and nuanced thought when it comes to weighing private interests against public ones. A story like Newsweek's—call it a specimen of doxing or not—is a reminder of how complicated, and how intertwined, private and public personas can be. For the founder of Bitcoin, and for the rest of us. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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