'We're watching you': Why doxxing is the new weapon of choice for cyber bullies and trolls
"The purpose of me putting your number online was so people can reach you directly."
That's what far-right activist Avi Yemini told me last week when I called to ask him why he'd published my personal mobile phone number on his Facebook page.
He also referred to my family as peasants, before suggesting his 140,000 followers contact me directly to let me know what they thought.
"If I just tagged your pages, your Twitter and your Facebook or whatever, who cares, you just ignore those," Yemini said.
"If you get a bunch of people telling you what you think, SMS your phone, you weren't going to be able to ignore that."
Yemeni's post unleashed a wave of racist abuse, harassment, and even death threats I continue to receive to this day.
It was also my first experience with doxxing.
What is doxxing?
Doxxing is an abbreviation of the phrase "dropping documents".
It involves releasing personal information — like your phone number, address, or social media profiles — to a hostile digital audience.
The practice developed out of the hacker culture in the 1990s but gained more prominence at the beginning of this decade when the hacktivist group Anonymous deployed it against law enforcement.
Even if you're not familiar with the term, you've probably come across some high-profile examples of doxing.
A group of male video game players doxxed female developers they accused of politicising the industry. The developers were exposed to a wave of vicious, sexist abuse as a result.
Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, and Jay Z have been doxxed. In 2013, their personal financial information — including their social security numbers, bank details, and credit card information — was published online.
"In the last 10 years, we've really seen an explosion [in doxxing] because social media has made it so easy to share this kind of data," said Asher Wolf, a journalist and transparency activist who writes about technology and privacy.
Wolf has also been the victim of doxxing herself. She says she was targeted over anti-war posts she made online.
Her doxxers found her address on an invoice she'd sent to a university. That invoice had been linked to a list of casual tutors, which included Wolf's name, and was posted online.
Once they had her details, they shared them on the dark web and encouraged people to visit her home.
"People posted dog shit through my mailbox because I was seen as 'leftist scum'," Wolf told Background Briefing.
So what happened to me?
Well, it's complicated.
You might remember the big debate last year about whether supermarkets should ban single-use plastic bags.
Coles, which had previously announced a ban, suddenly changed its mind in August, caving in to pressure from the public and some conservative commentators.
In response, I tweeted this:
A lot of people didn't agree with my perspective, which is their prerogative.
After Avi Yemeni stumbled across it, things escalated.
He posted a screenshot of my tweet alongside this message:
"See this taxpayer-funded ABC employee? He smears the country that gave his peasant family refuge. Feel free to let Osman Faruqi know what you think."
Yemini's post, which included my phone number, was shared hundreds of times.
In the comments section, I was described by various people as a paedophile and a terrorist.
That kind of abuse, while draining, is something I've gotten used to as a journalist who's active on social media.
But what happened next was totally unexpected.
I received a relentless barrage of phone calls and text messages.
Even though the content was similar to some of the worst tweets and Facebook comments I'd received, there was something much more visceral about hearing an abusive voice down the other end of the line.
One caller told me that I should "watch myself" because they "knew what I had done" and thought I was a "f***ing dog".
A text message said: "You are the lowest of low scum. Eyes open f***er, you never know what is around the corner."
"Muslim scum," said another. "I will spit on your face if I see you in the street, dog.
People called me day and night. When I didn't answer, they left abusive voicemails.
To make things worse, I started receiving more threats on Twitter — only this time, they knew where I lived.
Online trolls were posting details about the exact part of the suburb I lived in.
I couldn't sleep, my heart was racing, and I was having panic attacks. I was starting to worry about my personal safety.
Why not just go to the police?
I tried, but my experience with police was pretty confusing.
When the abuse escalated to death threats, I went to the cops to file a report.
I was told there is a federal law against this kind of thing and that I needed to mention it in my complaint.
That law is section 474.17 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code, which makes it an offence to menace, harass, or offend someone using a carriage service — which includes the internet.
The three officers I met with were generous enough to come to the ABC, but they didn't seem to understand the seriousness or the impact of what was being sent to me.
I got the sense that, because it was happening on the internet, it wasn't seen as real.
In fact, the officers didn't even understand the difference between Facebook and Twitter.
I provided police with screenshots of messages, call logs, and even the names of some of the people I suspected were behind them.
The material I gave the officers seemed to fit the statutory definition of to menace, harass, or offend.
But because we have "free speech" in Australia, one of the officers told me, they weren't able to stop people posting what they wanted.
Later, I received an email from another officer who said he'd reviewed my statement and concluded: "The post from Avi Yemini does not breach the Telecommunications Act."
Straight away I was confused by the reference to the Telecommunications Act. It had never come up in my conversations with police.
All we had talked about was the Commonwealth Criminal Code, which is the relevant law covering these kinds of alleged offences.
I also didn't know why the officer was only referring to the initial post by Avi Yemini.
What about all the threatening messages and calls made by other people I'd provided them?
When I called to follow up, the police confirmed they weren't investigating any of them.
In a recent statement to the ABC, NSW Police said: "Publishing the personal information of an individual is a breach of the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act 1998.
"Under the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995, it is a crime to menace, harass or cause offence using the internet or telephone.
"Those who feel they are a victim of technology-facilitated abuse, which include the offences of stalking or intimidation, should report this to police."
Asher Wolf had a similar experience when she contacted authorities after being doxxed and harassed.
"I talked to the local police at the station and they were very dismissive," she said.
"They told me it was a Commonwealth matter because the law was overseen at a federal level, not a state level."
Ultimately, the police advised Wolf to stay off the internet. It was impractical advice for someone who was working as a social media manager at the time.
Federal MP calls for anti-doxxing law
According to a senior lawyer, this confusion over jurisdiction is the result of state police having to enforce a federal law.
Michael Bradley, the managing partner at Marque Lawyers, said Commonwealth legislation should be the responsibility of the Australian Federal Police.
"The state police tend to be more focused on the offences they're familiar with, more direct personal harassment, intimidation, and stalking."
This lack of clarity on who should enforce the law isn't just a theory Mr Bradley's cooked up.
Last year, a Senate inquiry heard state police sometimes aren't even aware of existing laws around cyber harassment.
That's because the laws are part of the Commonwealth Criminal Code, not state legislation.
As a result, police often don't investigate these cases, according to the Law Council of Australia.
A report by the Australian Law Reform Commission found a lack of education and training was to blame.
The Senate inquiry recommended tougher penalties for online harassment.
It also said federal and state governments should coordinate more to ensure that police actually investigate and prosecute cases of serious online harassment.
But even if police get better at doing this, there's still a question mark over whether the law itself is clear enough.
Section 474.14 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code was written back in 2005. Facebook hadn't yet launched in Australia and Twitter didn't even exist.
Given the advent of social media has increased the rate of doxxing, isn't it time we implemented laws applicable to the digital age?
After all, other countries are taking action.
New Zealand passed the Harmful Digital Communications Act in 2015. Two years later, Germany passed a law that tightened regulations around hate speech and offensive conduct online.
There is precedent for overhauling Australian laws for the digital age. Since 2014, state and federal governments have introduced legislation outlawing so-called revenge porn and image-based abuse.
Previously, sending nude photographs of an individual without their consent would have been prosecuted under the Commonwealth Criminal Code. But politicians decided the crime was severe enough that it deserved its own law.
And at least one federal parliamentarian thinks doxxing should also have its own legislation.
"It's beyond time for the Government and for the Parliament to modernise the criminal code to accommodate all current technologies," independent MP Andrew Wilkie said.
"It's worrying and even downright dangerous that people can have their personal details sent out to really the whole world through the internet and through social media."
Mr Wilkie believes the issue remains unresolved because politicians just don't know enough about doxxing.
"I think the main reason for inaction in Canberra is unawareness of the scale of the problem and I'm guilty of that," he said.
"I was late to come to understand just how widespread online harassment is."
A report published this month by The Australia Institute found 8 per cent of Australians were the victims of cyber-hate, defined as repeated and sustained threats or attacks, and 5 per cent were the victims of doxxing.
"I see enough to worry me and to alert me to the fact that our Federal Parliament and our Federal Government needs to address this," Mr Wilkie said.
"It's not like it would be controversial legislation. It's not like it would be blocked in the Parliament. I don't think anyone would disagree with that."
A phone call with Yemeni
After hitting a dead end with police — and realising the limitations of the law — I felt powerless.
One thing I could do was actually confront Avi Yemini to ask why he'd published my number and encouraged people to contact me.
What did he think would happen?
The decision to speak to him was something I weighed up for weeks. I wanted answers, but I was also anxious. After all, I was still feeling the impact of his post and he's well known for aggressive tactics.
Over the past three years, he's built a strong following online by talking about hot-button issues amongst the far-right. Topics like migration, race, Islam, and crime.
He's targeted journalists and politicians, and last year, he turned his attention to me.
When I called Yemini and told him I was doing a story about doxxing for the ABC, I was surprised he agreed to speak on the record.
But even more surprising was the fact he couldn't even remember why he'd written the post that turned my life upside down. I had to jog his memory before he explained himself.
"I think you should hear from people not within your own echo chamber," Yemini said.
He told me he thought the messages I received were "disgraceful".
"I'm sorry you got those texts and I'm sorry that it was from me. It came from what I'd done. But, the fact is, that wasn't the aim."
An apology, of sorts.
I won't pretend that, after this phone call, I think Yemini is a good guy. But once I explained the consequences of his actions, he genuinely seemed to take my concerns on board.
And, to be fair, Yemini has copped plenty of abuse, too.
Just a week before we spoke, he received texts from another far-right activist calling him a "kike" and a "dirty Jew".
It's extremely similar to the countless hate-filled messages hurled at me since August.
Confronting your doxxer is not the solution for everyone.
Most people don't have the time, resources, support, or profile to make it worthwhile. And I'm not even sure what it achieved.
Sure, I got an explanation from the person who unleashed it all, but the masses of people who actually harassed and threatened me are unrepentant.
There have been no consequences for them.