Our reliance on technology, and social media to a degree, has led to a rise in cyberbullying trends such as doxing and stalking. As great as technology is, it unfortunately also provides people with an instant, viral and anonymous way to inflict harm more easily on others.
The phenomenon of doxing can be seen every time the social media keyboard warriors have a new enemy or war to fight. Doxing involves tracking down personal, private or identifying details about someone, like cellphone numbers, email addresses, home addresses and employment details, and circulating this information on the internet with the intent to “out” this person, embarrass them, victimise them or draw criticism towards them. The purpose is usually to ruin the person’s reputation, or worse, cause physical harm in some extreme cases.
In the cyberbullying context, doxing is used for coercion, online shaming, extortion and even vigilante justice. We often see this happening when someone shares something on social media that amounts to hate speech. Social media users find out the details about such a person and launch a full-blown personal attack to ensure everyone knows what that person did and their personal details in order for consequences to follow. It is often used as a means of enacting a form of justice against an enemy online.
This trend is rife amongst young social media users with many teens having their personal data and photos published on social media and instant messaging apps without their knowledge and consent as a means of cyberbullying.
Perhaps the scariest part of doxing is that once your private contact details are shared on the internet electronically, it’s extremely difficult (if not impossible) to get this information taken down.
Examples of doxing and the consequences
- We all remember the story of Cecil the Lion that was lured from a protected national park and killed in an illegal hunt. The prominent British newspaper, The Telegraph, disclosed the identity of the hunter involved: Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Shortly after his identity was released, his home address, website and work phone number were posted on the internet and he quickly became the subject of extreme internet hate. Palmer had his life threatened online, protests were held outside of his office in Minneapolis and his vacation home in Florida was also vandalized, as individuals spray-painted the words “lion killer” on his garage door.
- Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), also committed an act of doxing when he posted journalist Karima Brown’s cellphone number on Twitter. This was in response to a message mistakenly posted by Brown to an EFF media WhatsApp group which Malema perceived as indicating that she was attempting to send “moles” to a meeting that the EFF was hosting. She took Malema to court after receiving death and rape threats on her cellphone and the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg ruled in her favour and found that the EFF had contravened the Electoral Code and were liable for costs.
- More recently we saw what happened to Peter Wagenaar, the Sea Point man who came under fire for distributing food to homeless people during the lockdown. Members of the “Atlantic Seaboard Action Group” Facebook page shared personal information of Wagenaar to the group as many were angered by his actions and believed the feeding scheme was unlawful. A photo of Wagenaar and his wife was posted along with his name and address, a description of his car and the car registration number. The morning following this post, Wagenaar’s car was set alight, believed to be petrol bombed, and totally destroyed. A criminal case has been opened against certain members of this Facebook group.
The legality of doxing is not always clear but there are some legal consequences to consider as our laws on social media are constantly adapting:
- Where the doxing involves information that was already available in the public domain, the collection and republishing would not constitute a breach of privacy in terms of South African law. However, if such information was not public, there is a clear breach of the person’s right to privacy as enshrined by the Constitution and in terms of POPIA.
- If the information was obtained unlawfully, for example, by intercepting or accessing the information without the legal right to do so, by hacking or other means, this will be a contravention of RICA and the publication would also be unlawful.
- The person doing the doxing could be in breach of the terms and conditions of use of the particular social media platform being used.
- It is a criminal offence to intimidate a person by publishing words that have the effect, or that might reasonably be expected to have the effect, that the person will fear for his/her safety.
- As doxing is a form of cyberbullying, the person posting the information could be committing an offence under the Protection from Harassment Act and can face an interdict or protection order.
- Lastly, if there is a nexus between the doxing and damages suffered by the person whose information has been leaked, the person can claim for non-pecuniary loss, i.e. pain and suffering or emotional harm, or financial damages.
It is therefore important to be extremely careful when sharing information online. You never know who might be searching for your cellphone number or tracking the location of your home address from your photos’ geo-tags and what they plan on doing with such information. Also, remember that your actions on the internet and social media carry legal risks, be careful what you post!
Feel free to contact us should you require assistance with any of the above
 Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013, as amended
 Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-related Information Act 70 of 2002, as amended
 17 of 2011