The complex issue of privacy when on the internet

03 May 2019

The Oxford Dictionary defines doxing as “Searching for and publishing private or identifying information about a particular individual on the Internet, typically with malicious intent.” The term, which was apparently coined by hackers, is derived from the abbreviation of the word “documents”, i.e. “docs”, due to the fact that the type of information published is often found in private documents.

Doxing is often undertaken in the name of vigilantism, being used as a means of enacting a form of justice against an enemy online. Other than having their privacy invaded, the person who is doxed is exposed to harassment by other online users; in fact, oftentimes the person doing the doxing encourages or incites the public to harass his or her target.

Leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema, recently committed an act of doxing in response to a message mistakenly posted by journalist Karima Brown to an EFF media WhatsApp group. Malema perceived Brown’s message as indicating that Brown was attempting to send “moles” to a meeting that the EFF was hosting the following day, and he retaliated by sharing Brown’s cell phone number on Twitter.

The legality of doxing is a contentious issue. Where the doxing involves information that was deliberately made public (for instance, by publishing it on various social media platforms) by the person being doxed, the collation and republishing of such information would not constitute a breach of privacy in terms of South African law.

The person doing the doxing could nevertheless fall foul of the terms of use of the particular social media platform and therefore open themselves up to legal action being taken against them. It is therefore important to be aware of, and understand, the terms of use of each website that one accesses. Doxing using information obtained from LinkedIn, for example, would violate LinkedIn’s terms and conditions which stipulate that visitors to its website are not permitted to copy, use, disclose or distribute any information obtained from LinkedIn without the consent of LinkedIn, or to disclose information that they do not have the consent to disclose (such as the confidential information of others).

If the information disclosed was not publicly available prior to the doxing, the publishing thereof could be considered a breach of privacy. For instance, if the information was only disclosed to a limited group of people, it would not be considered publicly available. Furthermore, 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, the publication thereof would likewise be unlawful.

Irrespective of whether the information being published was previously in the public domain, 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 perceiving the publication of the information fears for his/her own safety. In the doxing example provided earlier, following Malema’s tweet, Brown was bombarded with messages on her cell phone which contained threats of violence and death, racial slurs, and other insults. Malema has since expressed his disapproval of the messages; however, Brown has laid a complaint of intimidation and violation of privacy against Malema and the EFF, the outcome of which is awaited.

One can protect oneself from doxing by enabling functions on social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter to protect content, and by disabling ways to search for an account, such as searching using a cell phone number. Conducting oneself on the internet is fraught with legal risks, therefore it is important to seek the advice of a suitably experienced attorney to assist with understanding and complying with the various laws that are applicable in this space.

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(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)
Mercia Fynn

Mercia Fynn is a Director and Head of KISCH IP's Commercial Department. Mercia has many years of experience in Commercial Law, particularly in the negotiation and structuring of a variety... Read more about Mercia Fynn


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