So much of life can be measured in sentimental milestones. Your first kiss. Your first heartbreak. Your first telephoned rape and death threat from a strange caller. You know, the precious threads in life’s shimmering tapestry.
You’ll never forget your first: I was at the offices of an Oakland creative agency, in the middle of a conversation about website copy. I normally ignore blocked numbers, but was expecting a number of calls that day so I excused myself and answered anyway.
“Are you still writing articles and doing videos? Because I have a story for you,” said a young, nasally, male voice.
“The person that’s going to rape and murder you.”
This wasn’t the first weird call I’d received on my cell. Earlier that year, I’d gotten a pair of voicemails — both from blocked numbers — from a single male caller identifying himself as two different law enforcement officers.
“This is Officer Hernandez,” the man introduced himself on one call. “You are guilty of entrapment. We have a warrant. Please turn yourself into the nearest police station.”
Recognizing this as a shoddy approximation of how an arrest works (cops generally don’t call to warn you), I laughed off the voicemails and filed them away in the “Weird Shit” folder on my desktop. Then I forgot all about them.
But for obvious reasons, the most recent call was different. It was a new voice, and in contrast to the ham-handed posturing of “Officer Hernandez,” the threat was direct and more aggressive. Sure, like many people who publish stuff on the Internet — previously I’d been a full-time video journalist covering technology and science — I’d had my share of juvenile insults, pervy remarks, and implausible threats casually lobbed in my direction. But a stone-cold death threat to my cell phone — that was a new one. Yet the caller sounded like he was reciting a telemarketing script: prepared in advance, quite possibly practiced on others before me. And as with most unwanted telemarketing calls, the pitch wasn’t that effective.
“Okay.” I chortled.
Nonetheless, I analyzed the call in my mind. The caller mentioned my work, which focused primarily on consumer products, mobile apps, emerging start-ups, and web trends. So what piece could have so passionately enraged this caller that I was marked for death? Was it my 2014 CES recap? My comparison of Siri and Google Voice Search? My coverage of the XBox One launch in Fall 2013? My lightly mocking overview of the Facebook Phone? Maybe this person really, really liked the Facebook Phone—who knows.
After talking to some of my peers in tech, science, and gaming journalism, it became clear that these annoying events are not only commonplace, but practically a rite of passage. Among those I know personally, well over half have received messages similar to mine, whether on Twitter, in comments, a phone call, or in some cases even physical letters. The letters, science journalist Trace Dominguez told me in an IM, “are taken more seriously. Because you have to REALLY WANT IT. But comments? Tweets? The barrier to entry for finding a stamp in your DESK is higher [sic].”
The ubiquity of these threats alarms some people, and it’s an understandable reaction. After all, we live in a weird time when dozens of female celebrities just suffered a mass nude photo leak, an executive of a major company openly talked about “digging up dirt” on journalists’ personal lives, and a nebulous movement called #Gamergate has generated a months-long firestorm of shit-slinging ostensibly around the issue of games journalism. In countless news headlines, Gamergate has been credited with “death threats” and “doxxes” specifically targeting female developers and critics — especially those, like Anita Sarkeesian, who apply feminist views to their work. Well-publicized events like this have led some critics to characterize the movement as gender warfare waged by misogynistic trolls intent on expelling female and progressive voices from the gaming community — in op-eds, in Tweets, and in countless headlines that mash “death threats” and “women” together in a tasty clickbait stew of culture war hysteria.
For what it’s worth, I have seldom commented on the status of women in technology or gaming—not because I don’t have opinions, but because I’m a tech critic, not a social critic. If you read my Twitter, for instance, I guarantee the only institutions you’ll hear me railing against are the iMessage platform and Los Angeles sports teams. So in the event I ended up in the dossiers of a misogynistic activist group, I’d have to assume it was some sort of clerical error.
But fishing for rationale in harassment is almost always a waste of time. The reality is, it is common to the point of mundane. According to Pew Research center, 65 percent of American adults aged 18–29 have experienced online harassment, with 20 percent reporting threats of physical harm. This helps to illustrate why treating harassment as an ideological war can distract from the bigger issue at the heart of it: systemic privacy loopholes.
Should you choose to a few precious hours of your life catching up on #Gamergate media coverage (not that I recommend it), you’ll find many breathless accounts of “doxxing” — that is, having one’s personal information (e.g phone number or home address) published online, with the intent to intimidate. This is a common escalation of harassment. Tara Long, a journalist active in the gaming space, described to me a series of incidents in which her home address, along with rape threats, was published using dummy Twitter accounts. After the first was taken down, “the same guy signed up under two other anonymous accounts, even tweeting a picture of my house to me.” Surely only an advanced hacker could mastermind such a fiendish act — right?
Hardly. As Tara pointed out, “literally everyone’s home address is publicly available online through shitty websites like Whitepages.com and Peekyou.com.” As for the picture of her house, “It was obviously taken off Google Maps.” (Ultimately, all it took was the mere mention of a lawyer for the perpetrator to delete the accounts and disappear completely.)
If you’ve ever Googled yourself (which you almost certainly have), you may have encountered listings on “people search” sites like the ones Tara mentioned: Spokeo, Pipl, InstantCheckmate, PeopleFinder, and many, many others. There are dozens of these engines, and they all do basically the same thing: Use web crawlers to mine existing sites, such as social accounts and other publicly available directories, for personal information associated with a single identity. That information is then indexed, repackaged, and aggressively upsold—you can pay $4.95 for an “Address Check,” $9.95 for a “Criminal Check,” etc. Unlike the old, printed White Pages of decades past, people search sites are designed to make you to shell out your credit card for the tantalizing, if unlikely, possibility of uncovering someone’s juicy private info. More often than not, you’ll end up with a hodgepodge of inaccurate or incomplete information; when I paid $2.95 to stalk myself on PeekYou, for example, I ended up with an address that was outdated by several years.
Still, it’s nearly impossible to get yourself removed from these sites. You may send an opt-out request to one, but because they rely on crawlers, there’s always a chance a listing will crop up again. As it turns out, my cell phone number had been searchable through a GoDaddy domain listing I obtained several years ago. So when you consider that nearly everyone’s personal information is discoverable, individual instances of harassment, like the one I experienced, seem a lot less intimidating.
There are indeed cases of serious harassment that warrant both public scrutiny and close attention from law enforcement. Police need to direct resources and expertise shrewdly to address these reports. But in the majority of cases, let’s call it what it is: a stupid prank call. At best, these amount to low-level exploits of publicly available information, and are not themselves worthy of special recognition—that would be giving the perpetrators more credit than they really deserve. So to the guy who called me, wherever you are: If you stay on the line and explain why I deserve to be killed, I promise not to laugh in your face next time.