Providers Can Take Action to Help Prevent Doxing
Increasingly, doctors who provide abortion care are being harassed and vilified through doxing — the online dissemination of their personal information.
From July to December 2018, researchers studied a sample of documents posted on an anti-abortion website and found a large percentage of photographs, home addresses, bankruptcy documents, and other personal information. Some files even included credit card transactions, bank account statements, and individual retirement account data for physicians.1
Much of the data came from public records someone accessed through Freedom of Information Act and open records requests, says Joanne Rosen, JD, MA, lead study author and a senior lecturer and co-director of the Center for Law and the Public’s Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“When we began review of the website, my assumption was that some of this information was obtained in ways that might be legally of concern,” Rosen says. “We couldn’t verify where they obtained the information, but everything was available in some public way. It surprised us that such a vast amount of information was available.”
The anti-abortion website included documents searchable by clinic type, doctor’s name, state, and keyword. The people responsible for the doxing had taken advantage of open records and public record laws.
“The purpose of these laws is to ensure the public have access to the workings of governments through its records,” Rosen explains. “State medical licensing boards are subject to public records laws.”
It was legal for anyone to ask for state medical licensing board information about a particular doctor.
“Some of the abortion opponents are very knowledgeable about the workings of public records laws, and they file strategic targeted public records requests with state medical licensing boards,” Rosen says. “They ask for disclosures of doctors’ medical licensing files.”
Those files were the single largest source of records posted on anti-abortion websites. “That information is supposed to be redacted by state licensing boards, but we found they weren’t always redacted,” Rosen notes.
For example, home addresses should be redacted. When someone requests information through a state medical licensing board, they are not entitled to view the physician’s home address. Yet, the boards often included the home addresses.
Some files included marriage licenses, Social Security numbers, curricula vitae, college transcripts, cover letters with personal information, marital status and children’s ages, passports, and other information that should never have been sent out in a public information request.
“The longest state medical licensing file for an individual doctor was 150 pages,” Rosen says. “At the time we began our review, the website included 16,000 documents and information on over 1,000 doctors. It’s a dynamic website with more information posted regularly.”
Investigators decided not to include the name of the website in their published study out of concern that naming it would draw more attention to the site.
The other main sources of doxing information came from court records, litigation, and documents such as malpractice lawsuits and bankruptcy filings.
“The most extensive personal information was found in bankruptcy proceedings documents,” Rosen explains. “That provides detailed personal financial information, including credit card statements and retirement [account] information.”
Anyone could check the documents and easily see what individual doctors and their family members purchased.
“That’s why we say the mining of these various sources of public documents and aggregating them and posting them online as a whole, searchable file under the doctor’s name is by itself a form of public document stalking,” Rosen says.
Working on this study made Rosen aware of how everyone is leaving an unknowing public record footprint that could jeopardize their privacy.
“For most of us, people don’t care about us and are not trying to identify and strategically search for all of this information and aggregate it and put it together and accumulate it to make it available on a searchable, open format,” she says.
But abortion providers are vulnerable to this harassment, and prevention is difficult. Nonetheless, providers can take these steps to reduce the amount of personal information that is available online:
• Ask medical licensing boards to redact personal information. Abortion rights organizations, medical organizations, and individual physicians need to be proactive and ask medical licensing boards to not disclose their personal information in document requests.
“Make the boards know that some of these public records requests are strategic attempts at doxing and harassing physicians,” Rosen says. “We’re not saying they should shut down access to information about doctors. But the personal nature of the information state medical boards collect can exceed any public interest in providing information about doctors.”
Instead of sending people a single doctor’s file that contains dozens of pages, they should send only a short summary with information that has public value, such as the doctor’s credentials and licensing status. Personal addresses, family members’ names, and other such information should be considered exempt from public information requests.
“We argue there should be a much more vigilant application of those exemptions for the contents of a physician’s medical board file,” Rosen says. “Just educate the state licensing board about where some of this information goes and why it’s being requested.”
• Reduce personal information posted on social media. This is the information providers have the most control over, and many already have chosen to avoid social media or be cautious with what they post.
“Doctors who do abortions are aware of the risks to their privacy and safety, and some may opt to not post,” Rosen says. “But we assume that providers who have a social media presence have chosen to do so.”
Those who do post information should know that even keeping an account private does not protect against breaching of information on public sites. Anyone following a person online could take a screenshot and repost something private.
• Keep name off property purchases and leases. “Leases for apartments or purchasing of homes are often public, and some doctors have been very careful about incorporating some entity and purchasing or leasing under another name,” Rosen says. “It requires work, and there are fees attached to that, but those are important ways of protecting information about where you live.”
For example, purchasing a house under a limited liability company is one step toward protecting a provider’s identity.
“It’s not failsafe, but it does provide some protection,” Rosen says. “A colleague of mine told me a few years ago that when she was looking for a place to live, she rented for some time, rather than purchase, because there was some anonymity. She chose a high-rise building because there was a doorman and more anonymity.”
- Rosen JD, Ramirez JJ. When doctors are “doxed:” An analysis of information posted on an antiabortion website. Contraception 2022;115:1-5.
Increasingly, doctors who provide abortion care are being harassed and vilified through doxing — the online dissemination of their personal information. From July to December 2018, researchers studied a sample of documents posted on an anti-abortion website and found a large percentage of photographs, home addresses, bankruptcy documents, and other personal information.
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