Over the weekend, a pro-ISIS group identifying itself as the Islamic State Hacking Division posted on YouTube the names, photos and purported addresses of 100 American combat pilots and other military personnel. Some of the targets had been involved in coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State, while others had not.
“Now we have made it easy for you by giving you addresses, all you need to do is take the final step, so what are you waiting for?” the group taunted, a clear provocation for ISIS-followers to carry out attacks.
It doesn’t look as if the group actually broke into any military systems. The military just got doxxed by some members of the ISIS fan club.
Doxxing is the practice of revealing personal, private, or identifying information about people online. It’s only likely to increase as more and more private information finds its way onto the web.
The term has been around for more than a decade. Police officers in Los Angeles have been doxxed, as have various law enforcement personnel around the country. Last year, Newsweek used personal information to name San Francisco resident Dorian Nakamoto as the creator of the digital currency Bitcoin. (Nakamoto denies that he is the same person as Bitcoin creator, despite having the same last name as Satoshi Nakamoto, the currency’s mysterious founder, or one of the founders). More recently, videogame developer Zoe Quinn, as well as many of her followers and supporters, saw personal information revealed online as part of a massive misogyny-fueled intimidation campaign popularly referred to as Gamergate.
Doxxing is a form of online harassment, which by some accounts has affected more than 25 percent of all Americans. Almost half of Americans under 35 have experienced harassment online, according to recent poll numbers from the progressive marketing organization the Rad campaign, and Craigconnects, the organization of Craiglist founder Craig Newmark. Among those who were harassed online, the poll found, 20 percent were afraid to leave their house.
The difference between doxxing and illegal online harassment is a matter of degree and consequence. Prosecutors sometimes target people who make threats against others on the Internet, but collecting and releasing personally identifiable information is not, by itself, illegal so long as the method for collection doesn’t violate wiretapping or email-hacking laws. An increasing amount of information is publicly available without scratching too hard beneath the surface.
Where does the information come from? Much of it is simply the leftover bits of our digital comings and goings, a fact of modern life: Join an association, sign up for a newsletter, speak to a group of students at a local school and you create data that’s personally linked to you, data that citizens, soldiers and others have been giving away to for decades.
Data broker companies essentially mine the web for personal content and then sell it to marketers, who use it to target customers. One such broker, Axciom, holds more than 1,500 pieces of information on 200 million Americans and as many as 500 million people around the world. It’s data that goes toward context-aware advertising, from sending you catalogues and showing you display ads, to pitching you on new products and services. But the sheer availability of massive amounts of personally relevant information online assures that more of it will be used to doxx people, possibly troops or pilots, and that has implications for national security.
Over the weekend, CENTCOM began contacting servicemembers and their families. Officials posted a note to the command’s Facebook page: “We are operating in a ‘new norm’ in which cyber threats are real and constant; any CENTCOM teammate or family member could be targeted. To that end, we all should maintain a heightened sense of vigilance whether dealing with work or home computer usage, specifically as it relates to Social Media.”
Modern warfare has arrived at a point where technology, rather than simply keeping us physically separate from our enemies, is creating new intimacies between American soldiers and their foes. That could hurt missions, troops or public safety. The military as an institution and the people within it can undertake a few simple steps to decrease the probability of their information showing up online as part of an intimidation campaign.
Ken Gagne of Computerworld took a look at several of the leading data broker houses and went through the process of opting out to keep his information out of brokerages’ circulation. Those steps, in addition to a few obvious safeguards such as using multiple passwords and email addresses online or making social network profiles private, could do much to reduce future doxx attacks against troops. But those steps won’t eliminate the threat.
Earlier in March, the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, or DARPA, announced a new program to better protect information that had been shared with third parties — precisely the sort of information that can go into doxx attacks.
“Currently, most consumers do not have effective mechanisms to protect their own data, and the people with whom we share data are often not effective at providing adequate protection,” DARPA program manager John Launchbury said in a statement. “The goal of the Brandeis program is to break the tension between maintaining privacy and being able to tap into the huge value of data. Rather than having to balance these public goods, Brandeis aims to build a third option, enabling safe and predictable sharing of data while reliably preserving privacy.”
Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; and Al Franken, D-Minn. announced a new bill to reform the way data brokers collect and use information, the Data Broker Accountability and Transparency Act (S. 668). The law’s drafters claim it will provide “critical protections against insidious, invisible threats on the internet – the sale of personal, confidential information, violating privacy and security,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “The bill guarantees the consumers’ right to access personal information collected about them, correct inaccuracies, and control how this data is used.”