Darkened figures descend into the Chicago subway. Photograph: Clarissa Bonet
Show Hide image

Ruins of people’s lives

The shadowy subculture of gang stalking.

In 1919, the psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk published his famous paper “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia”, in which he wrote about patients who believed they were under the control of malign technology beyond their understanding. Sometimes, they claimed, this technology would cause “erections and seminal emissions that are intended to deprive the patient of his male potency and weaken him”. In typical Viennese fashion, Tausk concluded that “the influencing apparatus is a representation of the patient’s genitalia projected to the outer world . . . a machine independent of the aims of the ego and subordinated to the foreign will”.

Right away, we might be reminded of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in which Tyrone Slothrop may or may not have been secretly conditioned to get an erection every time a V-2 rocket is about to strike London. Yet to find more patients for Tausk, we don’t need to look to fiction. “At first I believed they could only terminate my erection, but recently I also started believing that they could create my erection,” writes the author of a recent blog about electromagnetic persecution by the government. “Often I am given erections in co-ordination with the brain butchery, and occasionally voided of semen,” writes another in the same field.      

Both these bloggers are part of an online community centred on a phenomenon called gang stalking. Gang stalking, according to one website:

. . is a covert investigation that is opened on an individual. The individual is then placed under overt and covert forms of surveillance. The person is followed around 24/7. Foot patrols and vehicle patrols are used to follow the individual around, as part of the monitoring process . . . The secondary goals seem to be to make the target homeless, jobless, give them a breakdown, and the primary goal seems to be to drive the target to forced suicide.

Gang stalking has been linked with, but doesn’t necessarily involve, remote mind control. No one has ever come forward as a perpetrator. But large numbers of people have come forward as victims.

Before the internet, if you had developed the belief that you’d been targeted in this way, you would have been isolated. Anyone hearing your story – whether a friend or a relation, or a doctor such as Tausk – would have tried to persuade you that you were suffering from paranoid delusions. But today you would find confirmation of your suspicions on dozens of websites, blogs and message boards. “When you read the methods used by gang stalkers to harass their victims,” writes one blogger, “it is helpful to know that the stories told by victims worldwide are remarkably consistent.”

You would also find information on developments similar to gang stalking that have been documented in the respectable media, such as a declassified Pentagon report on the “Bioeffects of selected non-lethal weapons” or Ealing Council signing up eight-year-olds as “Junior Streetwatchers”. You could even make some friends. In other words, you’d be part of a community – and, as the British psychiatrist Vaughan Bell points out in his paper “‘Mind control’ experiences on the internet”, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual stipulates that a belief cannot be classed as a delusion if it is “accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture”.

Reading about gang stalking online can be dispiriting, because one has the sense that someone such as Tausk really ought to be intervening. But I confess I also find it addictive. For instance, consider one blogger who believes even birds and animals are his enemies:

Birds, pigeons and crows, that can be controlled to fly (screaming) over me, to land in my garden when I walk into my kitchen and look outside, to crash into my kitchen window and car front window while driving. Birds, pigeons, that come sit, walk, on the roof of my house when I am upstairs having sex. Cats walking by like being programmed. Barking of dogs, flying away ducks etc, not by mind control but by beaming these animals with laser beams (directed energy weapons).

An entire menagerie of animal spies – if that isn’t in Pynchon, it should be. One might also recall Kafka or Don DeLillo, not to mention Mark Lombardi, the American artist whose work consisted of diagrams of various conspiracies involving the Vatican or the World Finance Corporation.

On another website, I found a collection of photographs of household objects – folding chairs, velcro straps, long underwear – that their owner believes to have been damaged during secret incursions into his home. The pictures have such eerie power that you could easily imagine them on a gallery wall next to a William Eggleston or a Laura Letin - sky. Elsewhere, the idea of harassment through the “everyday stimuli” of “red, white, yellow, strips, pens clicking, key jangling, loud coughing, loud whistling, loud smacking of clapping of hands together, cell phones, laptops, etc” evokes Sartre’s metaphysical nausea.

Still other online writers veer towards the psychedelic visions of Philip K Dick, proposing that the gang stalkers are really “lower astral entities, some aliens/non-humans, and Neg entities in general [who] are known to feed on the energies created by lower frequency emotions, since that’s what they resonate with, farming us for them in the same way we farm animals for their meat, milk, eggs and parts”, or, alternatively, normal humans wearing “frequency suits”, which “are invisible to the naked eye, but they seem to transport either your etheric layer, or another such layer from place to place”.

This is dangerous territory, however. Yes, there are precedents for appreciating the special energies we find in work by people who deviate from the psychological norm, going back to Hans Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922). After reading it, the painter Paul Klee wrote: “In our own time, worlds have opened up which not everybody can see into, although they too are part of nature. Perhaps it’s really true that only children, madmen and savages see into them” – a remark the open-mindedness of which is not quite enough to outweigh its condescension. At Lausanne’s Collection de l’Art Brut and London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital there are whole museums devoted to such art.

None of the people describing their gang stalking experiences on the internet think of themselves as making art, however. They are serious. They want their writing and photography to be taken seriously. In most cases it is harmless to aestheticise modes of expression that are not deliberately aesthetic, otherwise there could be no such thing as Pieces of Intelligence: the Existential Poetry of Donald H Rumsfeld. (And there are grey areas: although Henry Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, one of the cornerstones of the very idea of outsider art, was certainly intended as a creative work, there is no reason to think it was ever intended for public consumption.)

But human misery is different. A comparison here might be what’s sometimes called “ruin porn”. I can spend hours looking at beautiful photographs of derelict houses in Detroit or condemned council estates in London, but at the back of my mind I feel guilty about it, because I’m aware that these aren’t just evocative scenery, they’re also places where people less fortunate than me actually had to sleep every night. Gang stalking websites, similarly, are the ruins of people’s lives and I shouldn’t be cruising them for ephemeral thrills. I feel the same way about a lot of amateur YouTube videos that go viral: some of those “zany characters” wouldn’t be behaving like that on camera if the US had a functional mental health-care system. This is what the philosopher Mark Reinhardt, in his essay on the idea of “beautiful suffering”, calls “a kind of morally obtuse obscuring or exploitation of pain”.

Gang stalking is more resonant than these other examples, because here we find ourselves counterpoising two different methods of making sense of the inferno in which we all live. To compare notes on gang stalking with like-minded strangers on the internet is to take part in an investigation, almost a forensic science, a project to expose what Pynchon calls “other orders below the visible”, instead of merely sitting in your house with the blinds closed because you’re worried that everyone is out to get you. And to appreciate the artefacts of this subculture on an aesthetic level is not only to look sidelong at despair: it is also to play on sensibilities that were first sharpened in us by the work of Pynchon, DeLillo, Dick and so on: writers who were themselves trying to confront a world so large, so secretive, so random, so pitiless that not much human feeling can survive in it.

These two postures differ in the important respect that one comes from a state of abjection and the other from one of literary privilege. All the same, they are both ways of coming to terms with life. I would like to say that in future I’ll spend less time on gang stalking websites, but my own work is so derivative of the aforementioned authors in its preoccupation with conspiracies that I will inevitably find myself going back to these sources to forage for inspiration. Then I will launder them in my work like dirty money. Perhaps the challenge, then, is to prove that an aesthetic attitude and an empathetic one need not be mutually exclusive – that even if I’m planning a novel about remote-control spy-ducks, I can forage and feel at the same time.

Ned Beauman’s latest novel is “The Teleportation Accident” (Sceptre, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

NEAL FOX FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

They know where you live

Imagine your house being raided by armed police. That’s what happened to Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts after she fell victim to an internet hoaxer.

At around midnight on Tuesday 11 August 2015, a man dialled 999 to report a murder. A woman had been killed in her London home, he said, before hanging up without offering his name. A second call followed. This time, the man claimed to be the killer. He told the operator that he had now taken the woman’s children hostage at the Islington address. They were locked with him inside a room in the house, he said. The police responded with reassuring speed. Fifteen minutes later, eight officers, five of them armed with automatic weapons, accompanied by saliva-flecked dogs, arrived at the scene and took up position in neighbouring front gardens. When one officer banged on the front door of the house, the team was greeted, moments later, not by a masked murderer but by a blinking and bewildered au pair.

Justine Roberts, the woman whom the caller claimed to have killed, was in fact nearly 2,000 kilometres away – in Italy, holidaying with her husband and children. After explaining this to the police, the au pair called Roberts, who assumed that the incident was an unfortunate misunderstanding, one that could be unpicked after the vacation. It was no mistake. Roberts had been the victim of “swatting”, the term given to a false emergency call designed to bait an armed unit of police officers to storm someone’s home. It wasn’t until a few days later, as the family was preparing to return to London, that Roberts discovered that she had been the target of a planned and sustained attack, not only on her household, but also on her business.

Roberts is the founder of Mumsnet, the popular British internet discussion forum on which parents share advice and information. A few days before the swatting incident, members of 8chan, a chat room that prides itself on being an open, anonymous platform for free speech, no matter how distasteful, had registered accounts on Mums­net with the aim of trolling people there. When legitimate Mumsnet users identified and then ridiculed the trolls, some retreated to 8chan to plot more serious vengeance in a thread that the police later discovered. Roberts wasn’t involved in the online skirmish but, as the public face of the site, she was chosen as the first target.

After the initial armed response, Roberts’s perception was that the police were unconcerned about the swatting attack. “We were told that there was no victim, so there was not much that could be done,” she told me. The hoax caller, however, was not finished. In the days after the incident, there was chatter on Mumsnet and Twitter about what had happened. A Mumsnet user whom I will call Jo Scott – she requested anonymity for her own safety – exchanged heated messages with a hacker who claimed responsibility for the 999 call.

“It descended into jokes and silliness, like many things do,” Scott said. “I didn’t take it seriously when the hacker said he had big surprises in store.” She doesn’t believe that what happened next was personal. “I think I was just easy to find.”

A few days after police were called to Roberts’s home, Scott was in her bedroom while her husband was sitting downstairs playing video games. At 11pm, she heard a noise outside. “I looked out of the window and saw blue flashing lights in the street,” she recalled. “I could hear shouting but I didn’t pay it much notice.” Then she heard her husband open the front door. Police rushed into the house. An armed officer shouted upstairs, asking Scott if she was hurt. When she replied that she was fine, he told her to fetch her two young children: he needed to see them. Scott shook her sons awake, explaining, so as not to alarm them, that the police had come to show the boys their cars. As the three of them went downstairs, the officers swept up through the house, repeatedly asking if there were any weapons on the property.

“I was beyond confused by this point,” Scott said. “Everyone was carrying a gun. They had little cutaway bits so you could see the bullets. My eldest asked one of the officers if he could have a go on his gun and went to touch it.”

As Scott sat with an officer downstairs, she asked what had happened to her husband. “I later found out that the noises I’d heard were the police calling for him to come outside,” she said. “He dropped the PlayStation controller as he left the room. It was only later that we realised it’s a good job he did: in the dark, the controller might have looked like a weapon.”

Outside, Scott’s husband had been surrounded and arrested. Other police ­officers were on the lookout in the front gardens of nearby properties, having warned the couple’s neighbours to stay indoors, away from their windows. “One of the officers said it was beginning to look like a hoax,” Scott said. “Then he mentioned swatting. As soon as he said that word, I twigged that I’d seen the term that day on Twitter in relation to the Mumsnet hack.”

***

The term “swatting” has been used by the FBI since 2008. “Swat” is an acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”, the American police squads routinely called to intervene in hostage situations. It is, in a sense, a weaponised version of a phoney order of pizza, delivered as a prank to a friend’s home, albeit one that carries the possibility of grave injury at the hands of police. For perpetrators, the appeal is the ease with which the hoax can be set in motion and the severity of the results. With a single, possibly untraceable phone call, dialled from anywhere in the world, it is possible to send an armed unit to any address, be it the home of a high-profile actor whom you want to prank or that of someone you want to scare.

In America, where swatting originated, the practice has become so widespread – targets have included Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood and the Californian congressman Ted Lieu – that it is now classed as an act of domestic terrorism. In the UK, where Justine Roberts’s was one of the first recorded cases, swatting is classed as harassment, though that may change if these and other forms of internet vigilante attacks, such as doxxing, become increasingly commonplace.

Doxxing involves the publication of someone’s personal details – usually their home address, phone numbers, bank details and, in some cases, email address – on the internet. It is often the prelude to swatting: after all, the perpetrator of a hoax cannot direct the police to the target’s home address until this is known. (During the week of the Mumsnet attacks, one of the perpetrators attempted to locate another target using their computer’s IP address, which can identify where a person is connected to the internet, often with alarming precision. Their calculation, however, was slightly out; police were called to a neighbour’s address.)

Though doxxing has a less dramatic outcome than swatting, the psychological effects can be just as severe. For victims – usually people who are active on the internet and who have outspoken opinions or who, in the eyes of an internet mob, have committed some kind of transgression – the mere threat of having their personal information made available on the web can cause lasting trauma. A Canadian software developer whose home address, bank details, social security number and email history were published online in 2014 told me that he now keeps an axe by his front door. “I still don’t feel safe here,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

Christos Reid, a social media manager for a software company, was doxxed last year. Reid’s information came from a website he had registered seven years earlier. “I woke up one morning to find a tweet announcing my personal details,” he told me. When he asked the Twitter account holder to take down the address, he was told to commit suicide. Reid said he was “OK for about half an hour”; but then, after he went out, he broke down in the street. “I’ve become more paranoid,” he said. He no longer gives out business cards with personal information.

Reid lives in London, but at the time of the doxx he was attending an event in Nottingham, home to the British police’s largest cybercrime division. He was impressed with the police response, even though they told him that they had not heard of the term “doxxing” before. “I was interviewed by two separate people about my experiences who then compiled everything into a case file and transferred it to the Met. When I arrived home, an officer visited me to discuss what happened and my options.”

The policeman explained harassment law to Reid, and offered advice on how to improve security at his flat and what to do if someone hostile turned up at the address. Reid shouldered the repercussions of what had happened alone; no suspects were identified. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police similarly said that although detectives from Islington CID have investigated the swatting attacks made on Roberts and Scott, no suspects have been identified “at this time”, even as “inquiries continue”.

Doxxing may seem to be a mild form of harassment but it carries with it an implicit threat of impending violence; the worrying message is: “We know where you live.” Unlike swatting, which is always malicious, doxxing is sometimes viewed by its perpetrators as virtuous. In November 2014, hackers claiming to be aligned with the internet group Anonymous published personal information allegedly belonging to a Ku Klux Klan member from Missouri. The hackers said that their action was a response to the KKK’s threat to use lethal force against demonstrators in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting against the killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. In January 2015 hackers claiming to be from Isis took over US Central Command’s Twitter account and posted information about senior military officers, including phone numbers and email addresses. In each case, those carrying out the doxxing believed, however mistakenly, in the virtue of their actions and hoped that the information could be used to bring punishment or ruin to the subject.

The term “doxxing” may be new but the practice is an old one. The Hollywood blacklist revealed the political beliefs and associations of actors and directors in the late 1940s as a way to invite shame, deny employment and dissuade others from following their example. “But it has become a lot easier to find people’s private details with the help of the internet,” Jeroen Vader told me. Vader owns Pastebin, a website that allows users to upload and distribute text documents, and where much of the personal data is anonymously uploaded and shared. “People post their private information on social networks,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that their information is so easily available to others.”

In Justine Roberts’s case, the perpetrator may not even have needed to look at social networks to mine her personal information. “If you’re on the electoral roll, you’re easy to find,” she said. “There’s not much you can do to stop people getting hold of your data one way or another, whether it’s for nefarious reasons or simply to better advertise to you. We live in a world that is constantly trying to gather more information about us.”

Jeroen Vader said he has noticed an “upward trend” in the number of doxxing posts uploaded to Pastebin in recent months, but insisted that when someone uses the site’s abuse report system these offending posts are removed immediately.

Across social media companies, action is more often reactive than proactive. Victoria Taylor, a former director at Reddit, one of the largest community-driven websites in the world, said that the rule against publishing other users’ personal information has been “consistently one of the site’s most basic policies” and that “any violation of this rule is taken extremely seriously by the team and community”. Still, she was only able to recommend that victims of doxxing send a message to the site’s administrators. Similarly, when asked what a person can do to remove personal details that have been published without permission, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Use our help form.”

The spokesperson added: “There has def­initely been an overall increase in doxxing since 2006, both on Twitter and on the internet more generally.” She attributed this rise to the emergence of search engines such as Intelius and Spokeo, services designed to locate personal information.

***

The surge in the number of dox­xing and swatting attacks is in part a result of the current lack of legal protection for victims. Confusion regarding the law on doxxing is pervasive; the term is even not mentioned in either US or European law. In a tutorial posted on Facebook in 2013, the writer claims: “Doxxing isn’t illegal as all the information you have obtained is public,” and adds: “But posting of the doxx might get you in a little trouble.”

Phil Lee, a partner in the privacy, security and information department of Fieldfisher based at the law firm’s office in Silicon Valley, said that differing privacy laws around the world were part of the problem. “Various countries have laws that cover illegal or unauthorised obtaining of data. Likewise, some of the consequences of releasing that data, such as defamation or stalking, cover elements of what we now term doxxing. But there is no global law covering what is a global phenomenon.” Indeed, Roberts believes that her London address was targeted from America – the 999 call was routed through a US proxy number.

One challenge to creating a law on doxxing is that the sharing of personal information without permission has already become so widespread in the digital age. “If a law was to state something like, ‘You must not post personal information about another person online without their consent,’ it wouldn’t reflect how people use the internet,” Lee said. “People post information about what their friends and family members have been doing all the time without their consent.

“Such a law could have a potentially detrimental effect on freedom of speech.”

Lee believes that a specific law is unnecessary, because its potentially harmful effects are already covered by three discrete pieces of legislation dealing with instances where a person’s private information is obtained illegally, when that information is used to carry out illegal acts and when the publication of the information is accompanied by a threat to incite hatred. However, this does not adequately account for cases in which the information is obtained legally, and then used to harass the individual in a more legally ambiguous manner, either with prank phone calls or with uninvited orders of pizza.

Susan Basko, an independent lawyer who practises in California and who has been doxxed in the course of her frequent clashes with internet trolls, believes that the onus should be on the law, rather than the public. She points out that in the US it is a crime to publicise information about a government employee such as their home address, their home and cellphone numbers, or their social security number, even if the information is already online. “This law should apply to protect all people, not just federal employees,” she said. “And websites, website-hosting companies and other ISPs should be required to uphold this law.”

Basko said that doxxing will continue to increase while police have inadequate resources to follow up cases. For now, it is up to individuals to take preventative measures. Zoë Quinn, an American game designer and public speaker who was doxxed in 2014, has launched Crash Override, a support network and assistance group for targets of online harassment, “composed entirely of experienced survivors”.

Quinn, who spoke about the problem at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC in April last year, recently posted a guide on how to reduce the likelihood of being doxxed. “If you are worried you might some day be targeted,” she wrote, “consider taking an evening to stalk yourself online, deleting and opting out of anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Both Scott and Roberts have changed their privacy habits following the attacks. Scott is more careful about interacting with strangers online, while Roberts uses scrambler software, which ensures that she never uses the same password for more than one online site or service.

For both women’s families, the effects of their encounters with armed police have also lingered. When one day recently Roberts’s husband returned home early from work, the au pair called the police, believing it was an intruder. And Scott is haunted by what happened.

“What if my husband had made a sudden move or resisted in some way? What if my eldest had grabbed the gun instead of gently reaching for it? What if people locally believed that my husband did actually have guns in the house?” she asks. “I don’t think the people making these sorts of hoax calls realise the impact.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism