IT'S JUST THE LATEST IN A DISTURBING TREND: YOUR ADDRESS AND PHONE NUMBERS ARE NOW WEAPONS.
BY SARAH KESSLER
On Thursday morning, a handful of anti-gun-violence activists realized there is an app in the Google Play Store with their names on it—literally. The app, Gunfree Geo Marker, features a map pinpointing the home and work addresses of politicians, gun control organization employees, and "random anti-gun trolls" who "push the anti-gun agenda in any way, shape or form."
Clicking on a person’s name in the menu reveals their address on a Google map, along with the app creator's reasons for including that person in the app.
For instance, Joseph Quint, a photographer who is working on a documentary about gun violence, is described as "an anti-gun troll who is so confident that he is right, he is afraid to defend his position." Andrea J. Markley, a woman who is vocal about gun control issues on social media, is described as "aka liberal hippie queen." Ladd Everitt, the head of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, is simply listed with his job title.
The app is a response to another app called Gun Geo Marker, which allows people to mark on a map the locations of guns that they believe are unsafe: For example, the gun's owner may have insufficient training or a history of frequent and unlawful discharge. Gun Geo Marker's makers say it is intended to be a safety tool. But Gun Geo Marker has been compared to a New York newspaper’s decision a few years ago to publish the names and address of 33,614 gun permit holders, an ethically dubiousdecision that many gun owners said made them feel targeted and vulnerable.
Regardless of how questionable those actions were, it's inexcusable that the newspaper's employees soon found themselves the targets of personally threatening messages. Many of their home addresses and phone numbers were also posted online.
No matter which side of the gun control debate you sit on, it's a disturbing trend: Your address, which is often public and searchable through sites likewhitepages.com, has become a weapon that people who disagree with you can use to intimidate you.
"Doxing" is a term for posting people’s personal information—phone numbers, addresses, names of their relatives—online, along with an implicit invitation to use this data for nefarious purposes. And in 2015, doxing is easy. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse lists 270 websites that openly sell personal information. Raising awareness about the ease at which your personal information can be unearthed is the first step toward fighting more serious forms of harassment, like sending people death threats or "swatting," a hoax in which someone reports your address as the site of an ongoing crime with the hope that a SWAT team will show up at your home, guns drawn. Terror organization ISIS has doxed U.S. soldiers. Gamergate has doxed its targets, too.
After several high-profile doxing cases, Twitter recently banned the posting of personal information like addresses on its platform.
Doxing is an increasingly common practice when conflicting opinions and ideas clash online, particularly when people feel like their identity (as gamers or gun owners, for example) are threatened by the issue at hand—so it’s no surprise that doxing (and apps to facilitate doxing) have popped up in the gun control debate.
Because what he posted in his app is publicly accessible, the author of Gunfree Geo Marker (who I reached via phone after exchanging emails with an address on his Google Play page) doesn’t feel like he’s doing anything wrong, and he says he's not worried that his information will help bad people do bad things. "It’s all public information," he told me (he declined to provide his name). "If there were nutjobs out there who would be doing this stuff with these people, because [the targets] have made themselves well-known in this debate, it would have already happened. [The nutjobs] would have already have this data."
Amanda Gailey, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who founded Nebraskans Against Gun Violence, was doxed for the first time after writing an unfavorable review about a phone case (she had purchased it without realizing it was made by a company that also made firearm accessories). She points out that posting someone’s address in an app like Gunfree Geo Marker because of their political beliefs is different than that information being listed in a neutral database like whitepages.com. "[Doxing me] was clearly meant to suggest that someone could show up, or at least make me think that was a possibility," she says. "This is what I frankly learned over time: that this is all an attempt to get you to stop speaking out or resisting what they are trying to do in your community. It’s primarily an intimidation tactic." After her work address was posted online, she says her campus increased its security.
"I know plenty of people who got tired of the online harassment and the bullies won," says Quint, the photographer whose address is listed in the app. "They stopped posting, they stopped talking about things, and that’s a huge win for [the harassers]. I’m not going to give them the satisfaction."
Anti-gun-violence activists have reported the app to Google and asked them to remove it from the Google Play store. Google's developer rules forbid apps from publishing people's private information, like credit card numbers, but does not, like Twitter, specifically ban posting addresses. As of press time, the app was still live. Fast Company has reached out to Google for comment and will update this post with its response.
The app's creator told me that when Gunfree Geo App first launched in 2013, it was just a page of text with no functionality—it was designed to make a point against Gun Geo Marker. But its creator added names and the map this month after Gun Geo Maker’s creator, a professor of visual arts at the University of California San Diego, Brett Stalbaum, rereleased his app in the Google Play store (Stalbaum did not respond to requests for comment on this article). Stalbaum had shut down the original app after it was spammed with false reports. He released a new version with a with a $.99 price tag. That's when Gunfree Geo App's maker made Stalbaum's home and work address a prominent feature of his own app.
Gunfree Geo App’s creator argues that the Gun Geo App unfairly pinpoints gun owners. "You could literally click on a dot and get someone’s name, address, everything, if they owned a gun," he says. "For them to get attacked because they own a firearm or they have a certain position about something, I find is wrong." He does not see the same problem with his own app. "All the people here," he says, "these are all people who made themselves very publicly known either through gun control organizations or on Twitter. These aren’t my next-door neighbors or someone I’m upset with."
Gunfree Geo Marker, according to its creator, only has about 181 users who have kept it on their phones after downloading it.
But the more disturbing part is the logic: Both sides think it’s wrong to use personal information as a weapon—unless they're the ones who are doing it.
Update: Gunfree Geo Marker appears to have been removed from the Google Play store.
[Source Photos: Flickr user Eric Fischer, Lisa Roe]
Sarah Kessler is a reporter at Fast Company, where she writes about technology companies and the people they impact.
March 27, 2015 | 12:00 PM