Unearthly home: as our numbers grow and we find ever less space on earth, living on the Red Planet becomes a tantalising prospect. Illustration: Mars Headlines Woodstock by Luis Medeiros.
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Death on Mars: would you take a one-way trip into space?

Within a few decades, we will have the technological ability to send humans to the red planet - as long as they don't want to come back home again.

“I want to die on Mars,” said Elon Musk last year. “Just not on impact.” The 42-year-old was not being flippant; he plans to use the $9bn he acquired through business ventures such as PayPal to leave earth’s orbit for ever. He believes it is the only way for the human race to guard against the fragility of life on a single planet, at the mercy of a supervolcano, asteroid strike or nuclear war.

Musk’s enthusiasm has energised a new phase of the space race: the conquest of Mars. Just over a decade ago, the US space programme looked severely dented, if not moribund. The explosion of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003 was both a human tragedy (all seven astronauts died) and a PR disaster for Nasa. Its space shuttle fleet was grounded for two years while the cause of the accident – a faulty foam block – was confirmed, and for a while it looked as if the Americans would need to cadge a lift if they wanted to get into orbit again. In his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Chris Hadfield describes that time as “one of the lowest points in Nasa’s history” and recalls that “many Americans were grimly questioning why tax dollars were being spent on such a dangerous endeavour as space exploration in the first place”.

Now, the picture could not be more different. Around the world, an unlikely alliance of tech billionaires, state agencies and private contractors is increasingly confident that, within 20 to 30 years, human beings will once again be striking out further than anyone has gone before.

The next big prize in the space race is the second-smallest planet in the solar system, a barren desert buffeted by 100mph winds, covered in the fine iron oxide dust that gives it its distinctive colour – Mars, the Red Planet.

To get there, our species must overcome four types of challenge: technical, economic, physical and psychological. The first is in some ways the easiest, or at least the most straightforward. We need better engines, and probably better fuel, too. “We can go to the moon with the engines we have, but we can’t go beyond,” Hadfield told me when I met him in London in December, just six months after he returned from his third trip to the International Space Station. “It’s crazy to accelerate for 12 minutes and then coast for six months.” When launching probes such as Rosetta, it is possible to use the gravitational pull of the planets and the moon as a kind of slingshot. But that method is too slow for a manned spaceflight.

“All the slingshot does is change direction, really,” Hadfield says. “You can do it through this long, laborious process of dipping into the atmosphere, but it takes months – and if you have a crew on board, they’re eating food and going to the bathroom, and wearing out contact lenses … it’s impractical. We can’t provide enough tuna for people for a two-year voyage; it’s crazy.”

He believes the answer might be ion propulsion, using electrically charged particles to create thrust: “Instead of putting a large amount of fuel out of the back pretty fast, you want to put a tiny amount out extremely fast.” Nasa already uses ion propulsion in small spacecraft such as the Deep Space 1 and Dawn probes, but it requires a sizeable input of power, and to scale it up to move people would be a huge challenge. “You probably need a nuclear power plant, and that’s really hard to launch safely,” Hadfield says drily. Nonetheless, he is optimistic. “You could have said exactly the same thing about cars in 1895 or airplanes in 1940: we can’t possibly make this work until we have new engines. We’re in the 1910 phase of rocket engines – we can do it, but it’s dangerous, and it doesn’t work all that well.”

Gathering enough speed to reach Mars is only half of the problem, though. The other half is stopping when you get there. The planet has stronger gravity than the moon – it’s 38 per cent of earth’s, whereas the moon is 17 per cent – and a very thin atmosphere, which does not generate much drag to slow a descent. “The atmosphere really just gets in the way,” says Tom Jones, who flew four space shuttle missions between 1994 and 2001, when I reach him on the phone. “It’s not thick enough to use a parachute for any appreciable deceleration.”

Preparing to land the Curiosity rover on Mars in August 2012, Nasa realised that the dust kicked up by a high-speed landing could damage the vehicle’s sensitive instruments, so it developed a system known as the Sky Crane. Essentially, after a parachute had slowed down the craft as much as possible, the rover detached from it, attached to a rocket-powered platform. The platform controlled its descent until the rover could be lowered safely, then explosive charges cut the cords between the two. The platform then flew off to crash-land.

Curiosity on the surface of Mars. Image: Nasa

The Sky Crane worked perfectly, but again – it won’t scale to a human-sized craft. “The minimum size for a rocket lander that would put a couple of people and their supplies for a year and a half on the surface of Mars is something like 60 or 70 tonnes,” says Jones. “We have a huge jump in technology to go from putting one tonne on the surface with the Sky Crane technology that Curiosity used last year, with airbags for the prior landers, to something that’s capable of putting down human crew and their supplies.”

Even if we did make it down successfully, there is a whole new set of challenges in staying alive for more than a couple of seconds. “The atmosphere of Mars has a density of 1 per cent of the earth’s and it is 95 per cent carbon dioxide,” says the astrobiologist Louisa Preston, a researcher at the Open University. “If a human being stood on the surface of Mars and took a deep breath … well, they wouldn’t be able to, because there’s not enough atmosphere, but what they did breathe in would probably kill them within three minutes.”

Trying to navigate the conditions on Mars is a sobering reminder that the “envelope” in which human life can thrive is tiny. The temperature on the planet is roughly -60°C, which might not be a problem in itself (human being live on research bases in Antarctica, where it can reach -90°), except that it can also change rapidly. Your equipment might be able to cope at low temperatures, but can it deal with a swing from 2°C to -90° in a single day?

The planet is also plagued by “dust devils”, tornados full of particles, like the ones on earth, only 50 times bigger. In the past, these have helped Martian rovers by cleaning accumulated grime off their solar panels, but a gigantic storm could abrade or even destroy vital infrastructure. (Because of the low pressure, if you stood in the middle of a 100mph dust devil, you wouldn’t feel much of a wind, but your equipment might get irreparably clogged with grains of sand.)

Preston’s research focuses on another technology that is vital to long-term colonisation of Mars: gardening. “It’s in the realms of science fiction, but we have an idea of essentially terraforming – where you could change the surface of Mars by creating a more earthlike atmosphere, and you could do that by planting acres and acres of grassland and trees.” She concedes such marked changes are centuries away, and in the short term there is an international agreement not to contaminate the soil of the moon or Mars with any terrestrial algae or bacteria; we might finally have learned the lessons of ship rats, or taking rabbits to Australia. But she insists: “If you’re going to move to Mars, you want to go with plants.”

We should be able to hydrate them without bringing water all the way over from Planet Earth: Mars has ice, and it is looking more likely it might have flowing streams, too, judging by the tracks the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has recently found on its surface. There may even be life on Mars, though it’s more likely to be “extremophile” bacteria than little green men.

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One thing that any Mars mission will need is money, lots of it. It cost between $20bn and $23bn to get to the moon in 1969, when the median yearly wage was about $6,000. In 2009, Nasa calculated that the Apollo programme, with its six moon landings, cost roughly $170bn at current prices.

In an age of austerity, where will that kind of money come from? The obvious answer is the private sector: Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is probably the highest-profile commercial operation, but its short-term ambitions are relatively limited. Although technically it goes into space – defined as crossing the Kármán Line, 100 kilometres above sea level – its passengers will get only a couple of minutes of weightlessness in return for their $250,000 ticket. (When I ask Chris Hadfield if he’d take a free ride, he replies diplomatically: “Oh, sure . . but you know, it’s quite expensive. I am so spoiled; I’ve had a tremendous experience.”)

Yet Virgin is far from the only player. A company called Planetary Resources, with a line-up of backers including the director of Avatar, James Cameron, and Google’s Larry Page, wants to mine asteroids. In 2012 Elon Musk’s SpaceX became the first private company to send a spacecraft to the ISS under a $1.6bn deal with Nasa. And the not-for-profit B612 Foundation wants to comb the skies for anything that might be on a collision course with us, to help stop a real-life remake of Armageddon.

Musk’s ambitions are the most expansive: he sees SpaceX as his ticket away from this poky planet and on to a new colony off-world. But, for any of the nascent private spaceflight companies, the discovery of valuable minerals in space, along with the technology to mine them, would create a version of the gold rush. As the former astronaut Sandra Magnus, now the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, put it to me: “If somebody finds a way to, say, bring an asteroid here [to mine it], it’s a game-changer … because now you have the entrepreneurial spirit. The risk/reward totally changes and governments almost are totally out of the equation. It could be 20 years, it could be 100 years, but eventually that’s going to happen.”

Much has been made, too, of the increasing interest from emerging economies in spaceflight. Last year, China’s Jade Rover became the first spacecraft to land on the moon since 1976. When it malfunctioned before powering down to survive the lunar night, it was “mourned” across social media. (There is something slightly pathetic about the thought of rovers sitting on a distant world, all alone: Nasa’s Curiosity played “Happy Birthday” to itself on 5 August, the first anniversary of its landing on Mars.)

 

 

Where the “space race” was once characterised by competition, now co-operation is the order of the day. Since Nasa retired the shuttle, its astronauts have relied on the Russian Soyuz module to get to the International Space Station, crushing the hopes of all those strapping Americans who are too tall to fit in the smaller craft. There are three countries represented aboard the ISS: Russia with Mikhail Tyurin, Sergey Ryazansky and Oleg Kotov; America with Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio; and Japan, with Koichi Wakata. Chris Hadfield – the best-known astronaut of recent times, thanks to his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” going viral on YouTube – is Canadian.

Because of this global alliance, the official languages of the ISS are English and Russian and all astronauts are expected to know both. “You have to remember that we all train together internationally as a group,” says Magnus. “All the time, you hear French or Spanish, German or Russian or Swedish or whatever in the hallways.” For her, this co-operation is one of the most “impressive, intangible benefits of the space station programme – the fact we made it work. All of these cultures, all of these languages, all of these different approaches to solving engineering problems, all these national agendas, the English system versus the metric system … you name it, we made it work.”

The private-sector companies aiming to go to Mars are replicating this international approach. Mars One, a project set up by the Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, announced that it would accept applications in any of the 11 languages most commonly used by people on the internet: English, Arabic, French, German, Indonesian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, or Korean. Among the 1,058 candidates through to the second round were people from Uzbekistan, Rwanda, El Salvador, the Maldives and Saudi Arabia.

Several of Louisa Preston’s students applied for Mars One, though she didn’t fancy it. “I don’t mind being in a tin can, but I don’t like the idea of not coming back. They’ve got eight to ten years of training and education before they actually get to go, and in that ten years, what are the chances of you meeting somebody, getting married, wanting to have kids … and you just can’t do any of it because you know you’re leaving and not coming back? I couldn’t do it. They’re much stronger than I am.”

This brings us to the final element of any Mars mission, the moving part that is most likely to break down: those delicate sacs of organic tissue that need to be kept warm and dry, kept hydrated and fed, allowed to evacuate their waste, and to be protected from the vacuum of space. The humans.

 

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On 3 June 2010, six men stepped inside a suspended module at Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems. The series of interconnected tubes, just 180 square metres in total (the average British home has only 96.8 square metres of floor space) was to be their home for the next 520 days. It had been designed to represent as accurately as possible the conditions that human beings attempting to travel to Mars would endure. These “astronauts” would eat dehydrated food, exercise in the gym, and visit a sauna to rub themselves down with napkins rather than take a shower. Three of them even got the chance to “spacewalk” in the sandy car park, converted to give it a passing resemblance to the Red Planet.

Although one woman had been involved in an earlier, shorter trip in the Mars mission simulator, no woman was chosen for this year-and-a-half-long stretch. A similar test in 1999 turned chaotic when the Russian captain forcibly kissed the only female crew member, a 32-year-old Canadian health specialist called Judith Lapierre. “We should try kissing, I haven’t been smoking for six months,” he reportedly told her. “Then we can kiss after the mission and compare it. Let’s do the experiment now.” Two of her Russian crew mates then had a fight so violent that it left blood splattered on the walls, prompting another member of the team, a Japanese man, to quit. Lapierre stayed only after the astronauts were allowed to put locks on their bedroom doors.

Luckily, the most recent Mars 500 mission faced no such problems. Its astronauts emerged on 4 November 2011, looking pale but healthy, the capsule’s walls apparently free from bodily fluids. But the experiment was not an unqualified boost to humanity’s hopes of getting to Mars. Four of the crew suffered sleep problems during the 17-month mission, probably related to the lack of natural daylight and close confinement. One was sleeping on average half an hour less each night by the time he left the simulation: a seemingly small difference, but one that could have had a big impact on his ability to carry out complicated tasks under pressure. Scientists monitoring the men concluded that they had, in effect, gone into hibernation. “This looks like something you see in birds in the winter,” said David Dinges at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who led the study.

The record for continuous time in space is 437 days, a title held by Dr Valeri Polyakov since his second stint on the Russian space station Mir in 1994-95. Like most astronauts, he experienced a loss of bone density because of the lack of gravity, although he recovered when he got back to earth. The ISS is now equipped with specially adapted gym equipment to offset this problem: there are treadmills with harnesses to ground you on the running belt. But at present there is no way to replicate the effect of gravity on your hips and upper femurs; without a load to bear, the load-bearing part of your skeleton wastes away.

Probably the easiest way to solve this is to design a fancier exercise machine, rather than create artificial gravity: there’s already a gizmo on the ISS that uses an evacuated cylinder to mimic resistance, which helps build leg and arm muscles. By contrast, artificial gravity involves “spinning things”, as Chris Hadfield puts it. “They’ve talked about having a tether, where you have a spaceship here and a mass at the other end, and spin them round each other. But tethers break and then you’re dead.” He pauses. “The moon has one-sixth gravity, which is probably enough to keep you healthy.” He doesn’t add: particularly if you’re never coming home to full-strength gravity anyway.

Illness will be a major concern of any long-term space mission. Hadfield knows this all too well, having nearly missed his final flight to the ISS after suffering an adhesion of his intestines to his abdominal wall caused by an old operation. (In the end, keyhole surgery freed the sticky glob of scar tissue and he was cleared to fly.)

Chris Hadfield lands in Kazakstan in May 2013. Photo: Getty

Being in space makes every medical problem a potential emergency. It’s not just the lack of doctors or equipment; it’s the confinement in a closed life-support system. On the 1968 Apollo 7 mission, Commander Wally Schirra developed a bad cold a few days in and passed it on to the other two crew. They became so bunged up – your sinuses don’t drain efficiently without the help of gravity – that they refused to wear helmets for landing, much to Nasa’s despair. On the next Apollo flight, one of the astronauts developed vomiting and diarrhoea (in mission log jargon, this was referred to coyly as “loose BM”). It left the inside of the spacecraft “full of small globules of vomit and faeces that the crew cleaned up to the best of their ability”, in the unimprovable words of Apollo 8’s Wikipedia entry.

Now, space agencies do as much as they can to mitigate sickness by quarantining crew members for several days before they get in a shuttle (astronauts also have to wear a nappy for launch because they are strapped in for so long). Yet even if you sterilise the craft and quarantine the crew it’s impossible to eliminate all pathogens.

When flights last months or years, there is the possibility of developing chronic or degenerative illnesses, too. Several astronauts have become depressed and withdrawn: one Russian on the ISS “checked out”, as Tom Jones describes it, and his crew mates had to cover his workload.

When you talk to scientists and former astronauts, this theme of human fragility emerges repeatedly. With the ISS, only 390 kilometres up, you can bail out and come home. On a longer mission, you can’t.

Since the Columbia shuttle disaster, Nasa has carried out extensive “war games” to test for the impact of astronauts’ death, liaising with the family, working out who will deal with the media, debating how to dispose of the body. That becomes even more vital when a Mars mission is on the cards. Oddly, half a century after Laika the dog orbited the earth for a few hours before expiring from overheating, many people would find it easier to accept the death of a person than an animal in space. After all, the human being chose to take the risk.

The last piece of the puzzle is the most intractable: can we cope psychologically with leaving the only home we’ve ever known? And can a small crew live in such a small space for so long without either retreating into themselves or having a punch-up? No one knows, but our experience so far provides useful indications of what not to do.

The space shuttle Atlantis. Photo: Getty

First, Sandra Magnus says, astronauts must be kept busy. “How many of us are just comfortable being couch potatoes, where we sit on the couch for 25 hours and don’t do anything else?” she asks. “We’re very busy on the space station. Even in our downtimes when we were ‘off from work’, there were things to do. Some of it was just taking pictures and cataloguing pictures, or watching movies and things like that.” It is unlikely that Mars colonists could surf the internet or chat with friends: there would be a 20-minute delay in communications with earth. (Even now, the internet on the ISS is so slow, it can barely stream YouTube videos.) And they couldn’t pass the time looking out of the window. As Tom Jones says, “Hadfield and I had the joy of looking at the earth if we cared to: it was always different, always amazing. When you’re on a cruise to Mars there won’t be anything to look at except the stars. And even then, if you have the cockpit lights turned up and you look out the windows, you’ll see just black.”

Second, astronauts need personal space. On the ISS everyone has a private cubicle, but a travelling craft is more crowded. “The shuttle was more like a camping trip, in that you would unroll your sleeping bag at the end of the day and stake your ground,” Magnus says. The selection of astronauts is crucial to cope with a confined space; Hadfield’s book describes how the alpha-male “Top Gun” test pilots of early Nasa missions have given way to more easygoing types. One suggestion, put forward by the non-profit Inspiration Mars Foundation, is that the ideal crew to send to Mars is a middle-aged married couple who are used to spending lots of time together; give them an allotment and a box set of Midsomer Murders and they’ll be happy as Larry.

Whatever the challenges in getting to Mars, everyone I asked was confident that they were not insurmountable. “I’d say 2040 is a reasonable guess [for the first flight],” says Jones.

The pioneering spirit that took us to the top of Everest and the bottom of the sea, that drives people to spend the winter imprisoned on an Antarctic research base, will always win out. Despite the risks – perhaps because of the risks – there are people alive today who probably will die on another planet. They’ll look up at the pale blue dot in the sky and, unlike any generation before them, that planet won’t be their home.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

NEAL FOX FOR NEW STATESMAN
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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.

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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