Late on the afternoon of November 5, 2015, the hacker collective known as Anonymous released personally identifying information exposing the identities of hundreds of alleged members of the KKK. In describing its reasoning for the release, it claimed that the KKK:
"...generally oppose[s] interracial relationships, homosexuality, and illegal immigration and historically express[es] this ideology through acts of terror. We want to remind you: This operation is not about the ideas of members of the Ku Klux Klan. This is about the behaviors of members of KKK splinter cells that bear the hallmarks of terrorism."
Anonymous spent the last 11 months gathering the information contained within the data dump; it argues that the release is about terrorism. “We defend free thought and free speech. The anons responsible for this operation will not support *acts* of terrorism and *acts* of hate inflicted upon the public. The KKK is part of an important cultural landscape and history in the United States," the release on Pastebin reads. “We need to make room for important, blunt, honest, public, productive conversation. Violent bigotry IS a problem in the United States. This is not a colorblind society. It [is] deeply divided on racial lines.”
Dubbed Operation KKK, the published data consists mostly of the Facebook pages of suspected (or allegedly confirmed) members of the KKK. Known as doxing, the goal of the data dump was to stimulate conversation around racism in the United States. “We hope Operation KKK will, in part, spark a bit of constructive dialogue about race, racism, racial terror, and freedom of expression, across group lines,” the disclosure reads. “We consider this data dump as a form of resistance against the violence and intimidation tactics leveraged against the public by various members of Ku Klux Klan groups throughout history.”
Assuming that resistance can be expressed online, the discussion then becomes one of determining if doxing is a legitimate form of resistance. Is the public disclosure of someone’s membership in an organization — indeed, a racist one — a proper display of dissent? What if the exposed data contained home addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, etc.? Would that matter? Is the seeming vigilantism of the release overridden by the end goal? Equally controversial is the discussion around which groups can use doxing as a form of demonstration. Can only anti-racist ones? Anti-government groups? Gamergate trolls? Can we dox anyone for any reason?
Rebecca Watson, writer at Skepchick.org, argues that doxing is simply a tool, and as such, is an amoral act. What gives it meaning, what determines its “goodness” or “badness,” is the context in which it's used. "I’m frankly tired of the black and white thinking that goes along with any discussion of doxing, as though an aggressive act is inherently evil regardless of who the target is and who the perpetrator is,” she writes. “Doxing is one of those acts that can be used for good or for ill. Like punching.”
To make her point, Watson describes an incident between famed astronaut Buzz Aldrin and conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel. Sibrel, a filmmaker, claims that the Apollo moon landings are fake. In fact, he’s made four films on the topic. In September 2002, Sibrel confronted Aldrin outside of a Beverly Hills hotel and insisted Aldrin swear on a Bible that he had indeed walked on the moon. After Aldrin refused, Sibrel called him “a coward, and a liar, and a thief” and Aldrin punched Sibrel in the face. The clip is below.
To Watson, circumstances matters. To determine whether any act, including doxing, is appropriate, you must consider context:
"I'm a nonviolent person. I think violence rarely solves any problems and more often only makes them worse. I’m anti-war. I’m anti-gun. And in many cases, I’m anti-punching. But god damn, did Sibrel ever deserve that punch. Had it been the other way around — had Sibrel followed Aldrin around, harassing him for a minute, before Sibrel punched Aldrin in the face — I would vehemently condemn the act. Does this make me a punching hypocrite? No: It makes me a person who understands that for some acts, the context matters in determining whether it’s a good or a bad thing.”
Like punching someone in the face, doxing can only be judged by the circumstances in which the act occurs. Had Sibrel punched Aldrin, we would have immediately said it was wrong. But, when Aldrin punches Sibrel, most of us view it as Sibrel receiving his comeuppance. He deserved it.
In the case of the KKK release, I’m not sure it really matters. By most accounts, the data is not that impressive. Much of the dumped material comprises information about already known members of the KKK. These are people who previously had publicly acknowledged their involvement in the KKK and other white supremacist groups. But the KKK data release does give us an opportunity to examine our thoughts around doxing and its uses (or misuses). Like most things, there isn’t a bright, shining line between when it is appropriate to use and when it isn’t. Like most things, context matters.