Doxxing, where someone's personal information is published online as an act of digital vigilantism, has become so common even privacy and anonymity advocates are doing it.
A few days ago, a developer for the internet anonymity nonprofit Tor Project revealed the true identity of an annoying Twitter user who, she wrote, had "harassed" her over the past four months.
It's an ironic move, considering Tor was created to protect anonymity. And while it looks like a case of someone using a despised collective punishment tactic from 4chan for a good cause, it is not that simple.
The ensuing controversy over the doxxing has become a strange ethics exercise in the appropriateness of the tactic—and somehow, PandoDaily journalist Yasha Levine is responsible for a large chunk of the whole thing.
It all started back in July, when Levine published an article that was critical—in a fear-mongering sort-of-way—of the Tor Project. The story described how Tor was originally created by the US government and still receives funding from it, something Tor states on its About page.
In a follow-up article three months later, Levine described Tor as "almost certainly a giant honeypot," here meaning a trap law enforcement used to catch criminals.
The articles generated an intense reaction from supporters and detractors of Tor.
JbJabroni10, as he's known on Twitter, was one of the most active critics and seized on Levine's work. He had been bothering various esteemed members of the infosec and digital rights community for the past few years, by tweeting tough or ludicrous questions at them about their work under various accounts.
Tor developer Andrea Shepard was one of his favorite targets. He once asked her if she was responsible for Aaron Swartz's death, for example.
Sometimes, JbJabroni10 would insult his target's appearance, a courtesy mostly given to women. He wasn't the type to post death, rape or other threats of violence that violated Twitter's terms of service, and seemed to go after pretty much anybody, including the infamous troll weev.
"One of my go-to tactics on twitter is derived from beaten wife syndrome," JbJabroni10 tweeted. "Harass/accuse/belittle to evoke response… Then apologize/suck-up to once the higher-status person responds."
He came off as particularly obsessed with Shepard and another female Tor developer named Runa Sandvik, mentioning them more frequently in recent months. JbJabroni10 was muted or blocked by many, and partially because of this, is believed to have operated a handful of sock puppets, or fake Twitter accounts like @JbGelasius and @HaileSelassieYo.
One woman from the infosec community compared the collective harassment Shepard was receiving from JbJabroni10 and other like-minded individuals to GamerGate, the controversy over harassment and sexism in the video game community.
Whenever JbJabroni10 referenced Levine's work or criticized Shepard, the journalist would retweet him. Shepard took the retweeting of her harassers as an indication that Levine encouraged and sanctioned Becker's (and others) insults and obsessive behavior.
Finally, in retaliation, Shepard published a blog post that revealed JbJabroni's real name: Jeremy Becker, a pharmacist who lives with his parents in New Jersey. Becker has since deleted all his accounts.
It's unclear whether the doxxing will put a stop to Becker's behavior. Shepard told Motherboard she hasn't been contacted by any of Becker's known accounts, but has no way of being sure if he's not still harassing her under a new name as "he was part of a larger mob of deranged Pando followers."
Of this mob of critics attacking her online, she writes, "the core of the group is in the low dozens, but hard to estimate because of the amount of sockpuppetry going on…I've blocked somewhere a bit over a hundred of them in the last four months since the Pando harassment campaign began in earnest."
Levine did not respond to a request for comment, but did retweet many things last night, including jokes from his supporters about how this whole thing was "actually, about ethics in retweet journalism."
It is impractical to suggest journalists are responsible for what their followers do, and even more ludicrous to suggest retweets are endorsements. However, if one of your avid supporters is using your work to harass someone else, and you retweet them constantly, you can't then be astonished if the harassment victim views your tweets as encouraging her harasser.
The supporters of Becker versus the supporters of Shepard generally fall into gendered camps. Becker's supporters paint the issue not as one of harassment, but as an influential member of the community silencing one of her critics by playing the victim card. They don't see Becker's Twitter badgering as harassment at all. Comparing the controversy to Gamergate is not far-fetched: one side says it's about sexism and harassment, the other, about the ethics of Tor developers.
In a heavily circulated blog post written yesterday by a Shepard critic known as Kandy Kristchev, Becker is painted as a "scrapper" and "annoying gadfly" who "ran around the infosec internet poking holes in bullshit official stories." According to Kristchev, Becker's doxxing by Shepard was done to silence him "not for his 'misogyny,' evidence of which is thin at best, but for making powerful jerks uncomfortable."
Said blog post also tries to justify Becker's harassment of Shepard over her goth aesthetic, theorizing Shepard dressed the way she did because she wanted attention and likened her to a "porn pixie," which is the community equivalent of the "fake gamer girl."
Saying Shepard was overreacting is insensitive to the well-documented harassment women receive online
Women who've been the subject of Becker's unwanted attention were not as keen to dismiss Becker as a harmless troll type. Saying Shepard was overreacting by outing Becker, a move she explained she did in self defense, is insensitive to the well-documented harassment women receive online.
However, Shepard is not entirely off the hook. Sharing information about Becker's parents, and enabling her supporters to contact Becker's place of work, crosses a line and is an unusual move given Shepard's privacy and anonymity advocacy. Trying to get Becker fired, even if it is a way of teaching him his online actions have real world consequences, is morally debatable, but sharing information about his parents is unnecessary collateral damage and puts them at risk of future harm. Calls to Becker's workplace trying to verify claims on Twitter and in Kristchev's blog post that he had been fired were not returned.
In an email, Shepard admits doxxing to stop harassment is "not a reliable solution because a smarter harasser will always manage to conceal himself, but I'll take what I can get in the moment right now."
One instance where doxxing, or rather the threat of doxxing, worked to end harassment happened recently, in the Gamergate debacle. Independent video game developer Brianna Wu put a $11,000 bounty on the personal information of those issuing death threats, so that she could take it to the police. Once her bounty was known, the death threats stopped.
Twitter doesn't seem to have a working solution combating harassment on its platform yet, but did announce today it would be rolling out new tools to combat online abuse. Publicly shaming the harassers with their personal information and notifying their employer doesn't seem to be one of them.