Wednesday, September 16, 2015

What does the dox say?

The other day, a friend of mine wrote a blog post about how an anti-vaccine Facebook page was taken over by someone who worked their way up to admin privileges, locked out all of the other admins, and then started posting goat memes, a practice known as "goating". My friend had been invited to take part, but by the time he took a look, the goating was well underway. All he did was write up a blog post describing what had happened, mentioned in passing that he had enjoyed watching events unfold, and giving a history of how goating started.

And for that, he was doxed.

I mentioned doxing a couple of weeks ago in my review of Felicia Day's new book, You're Never Weird on the Internet (almost). Day had been doxed by members of #GamerGate after she wrote a post describing how the whole #GamerGate phenomenon had made her afraid and cautious. The point of her post was just to illustrate how the actions of a few were creating a rift among the gaming community. She was trying to bring gamers back together to celebrate what all of them love: games. And for that, those handful of malcontents posted her personal information in an attempt to silence her.

[Editorial note: Apparently, that last sentence was missed by some people, so I feel like I need to clarify some things. 1) I am not saying that all of #GamerGate engages in doxing or other bad behavior. Just like every community has its bad seeds, the people who doxed Day are a subgroup and may or may not be representative of the larger group. I'm relating a single incident. 2) This is a minor point that I made in passing. I'll be taking a close look at comments that focus on this, rather than the larger issue I'm addressing: namely, the doxing of people with the intent to silence them or cause them distress. You want to talk about GG? There are plenty of other places on the intranet for that. This post isn't one of them. So, please, keep your comments on topic.]

Similarly, that's what happened with my friend, René. He is an epidemiologist who happens to have a personal blog, Epidemiological, where he writes about things that interest him. That mostly has to do with public health. It's a topic he's so passionate about that he's not content simply working in the field, but pretty much lives and breathes public health. He cares a great deal about his fellow human beings and wants to make sure that everyone has the best chance to live their lives to the fullest.

So what happened?

The first thing is that his registrar messed up, big time. He had requested that his personal information be kept private, but the registrar claimed they had a technical issue that revealed his info. Although they fixed the problem, it was already too late. Anyone that did a WhoIs search for his domain had been able to find his name, address, and phone number.

Phillip Brandon Holmes did just that:

Doxing: the way of the coward.

But Mr. Holmes wasn't content to post only Ren's home address and phone number, he also posted his cell number, defending his decision to do so even after it was pointed out to him that Ren wasn't involved in the takeover of the Facebook page:

Others also took the information that Mr. Holmes provided and spread it on Facebook. Just like with Felicia Day, the intention behind doxing Ren was to silence him, to send the message that people know his information and can make his life difficult. That alone is bad enough, but it seems Mr. Holmes was not content with simply doxing Ren.

As Ren described to me, he received a phone call on his cell phone. He Googled the number and guess whose name should come up? Phillip Brandon Holmes. Here's how Ren describes that call:
"I had just finished talking to my wife when the phone rings. It’s him. He asked if I was looking for him. If you see the post he’s now deleted, he claims that someone from my area code called him, so he called me. Frankly, I don’t know how he got my cellphone number, but I’ve put it out there a couple of times. (LinkedIn?) Anyway, he tells me that he’s not afraid of me, blah, blah, blah. He then says that he’s from Texas, as if that’s supposed to scare me. I told him, “Good. I’m from El Paso.” He was quiet for a few seconds and then raised his voice, yelling at me that he was in Dallas and that I’d be — in his words — “spitting out buckshot” if I went looking for him. (Why would I do that? Who willingly goes to Dallas for anything?) He then cursed at me a few times. I tried to be calm and reason with him, but he wasn’t having any of it. He then hung up the phone. I promptly blocked his number. I hope he has a nice life."
That's not the only harassment Ren endured, either. Another anonymous person emailed Ren's dean to complain about him, stating that he was harassing others and violating his own privacy policy, both false claims. This person asked that Ren be disciplined.

Fortunately, Ren's dean supported my friend for several important reasons. First off, Ren was writing as a private individual, on his own blog, where he makes clear that "any and all opinions here are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of his friends, employers, relatives, schools, etc." His post had nothing to do with his university. Second, as a doctoral student, he has academic freedom to pursue and share ideas, even if they may be inconvenient to others. Finally, there's the fact that his university honors his right to free speech, which allows him to express his opinions on anti-vaccine tactics and to criticize their actions.

This isn't the first time that Ren has been harassed by those who disagree with him. Back in 2011, he was the target of another person who doxed him and emailed his employers. In that instance, the person emailed almost everyone at Ren's work. Someone higher up the chain forced him to pull the plug on his blogging, and he was, for a time, silenced.

Doxing is a despicable act. The fellow from 2011, Mr. Holmes, and every other person who posted Ren's personal info all have some things in common. None of them have cogent, logical arguments to present. None of them value critical inquiry. And all of them are cowards. Gutless bullies to the last. What this tactic says is, "I'm not going to bother arguing the facts. I'm not going to bother politely asking you to make corrections or remove errors. No. If you you write something I don't like, I'm going to make your life hell." The sad thing is that, depending on the target, it can work.

Ren's been through this before, and, because he is so passionate about public health, I'm sure that he will go through this again. Although he took down the post that prompted these latest attacks, Ren won't stay quiet. He will continue to educate people and write about vaccines, infectious diseases, outbreaks, and, yes, anti-vaccine activists. He's fortunate, now, to have a position where he does have the freedom to express his opinions.

I'd just like to end with what I feel I shouldn't have to say. This is my personal blog. I don't write as a representative of anyone other than myself. If you have a problem with anything I've written, take it up with me. If you can present valid arguments, I'm more than happy to change my opinion and post corrections. I'll also note that the images I used were posted publicly, though they have since been removed from Facebook.


  1. You feckers *love* to do whatever you can to bring #Gamergate into anything that isn't relevant to it, don't you? Newsflash, monkey: #Gamergate had nothing to do with doxxing Day, if she was in the first place.

    This is supposed to be a science blog, so why not keep the politics and "social justice" out of it? Especially since that whole idea has no scientific merit at all.

    1. "Todd W. initially created Harpocrates Speaks to provide a place for people to leave comments that have been censored at the Age of Autism blog. Since then, he has revamped the site to cover a range of topics: censorship, children's health, ethics, medicine, science and skepticism."

      This is supposed to be a blog about anything that takes Todd's fancy it would seem.

    2. Hi, Robert. I've added an editorial note, since you seem to be operating under some confusion. First off, drop the strawman arguments. I know that #GamerGate, as a larger topic, was not focused on doxing Day. However, there were members of the movement that did post her personal info. They might be a minority of the larger group, but it did happen.

      Second, GG was a minor aside to a larger issue. Please keep your comments on the topic of doxing, rather than derailing it into a pro- and anti-#GamerGate flame war.

      Finally, as Unknown points out, this is my blog and I'll write whatever I feel like writing about. Censorship and tactics used to achieve the silencing of others are valid topics and are important ones to the science and skeptical community. If you don't like that, then don't read.

  2. Robert, how about you grow up. Just because you are online does not give you the right to act like a school yard bully.

  3. Wow, Robert. You're a bonafide arsehole.

  4. [Disclosure: René is a friend in real life, albeit one I do not see in the flesh that often.] Thanks for writing this, Todd.

    I am aware of at least 5 other instances where vocal proponents of science and vaccination have been doxed, threatened, and their employers contacted in a inimical way by vaccine-rejectionist folk.

    I am NOT aware of any instances where vaccine-rejectionist folk have spoken up against this practice.

    I am NOT aware of any instances where vaccine-rejectionist folk have been doxed, threatened, and their employers contacted in a inimical way. I'd like to know if that has happened.

  5. Rene had asked me just after his information was posted. I'm an information security professional and my first thought was his domain registration.
    Sure enough, when I ran whois against his domain, his name, address, home phone number, e-mail address and even his zip code came up.
    Flabbergasted, I sent him an e-mail to his gmail account, with the whois and a suggestion that he "raise merry hell with your domain registrar".

    As for the genitalman from Dallas, doxing isn't cool, it is childish and dangerous. I ponder how he'd feel about getting swatted.
    Fortunately, I'm not one to abuse the system in that manner. I'm much better than that.
    But, should Rene or his wife come to harm, I remind that individual that my prior career involved terrorizing real terrorists for a living and I was very, very good at it.


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