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Laurie Penny on a tale of two cities: how San Francisco's tech boom is widening the gap between rich and poor

San Francisco is awash with tech money. Yet this city of innovation is also a place where you have to step over the homeless to buy a $20 artisan coffee.

Ivory towers: the cost of living in San Francisco is soaring - but the city is also a magnet for the long-term homeless.
Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos.

“They took my shopping cart.”

On Market Street in downtown San Francisco, an old man with long, dirty hair has dropped his collection can. Coins and scraps of paper spill across the sidewalk and into the road. Nobody is helping.

Every day, between two and four in the morning, cleaners with high-powered water jets come out to hose Market Street clean of urine, rubbish and, sometimes, men, women and children who have nowhere else to go. Bags and belongings are confiscated in an effort to discourage one of America’s most intransigent homeless populations from sleeping on sidewalks that are now slap in the centre of the most desirable neighbourhood in one of the nation’s most expensive cities. This is where Twitter has its headquarters. This is where the best and brightest young minds in the world come to work as engineers, designers, visionaries. It’s just a shame that the smell of shit and guilty consciences is hard to soak away.

The story of how the hi-tech industry has brought rapid social change to San Francisco has been written before, by journalists and authors who have lived their entire lives in the Bay Area and watched the city struggle through successive industrial bubbles and survive. That story has been so well covered in recent months that the San Francisco Chronicle published a short guide “to help our brethren who have flocked here to write the latest ‘How the tech boom is changing San Francisco’ opus”: “It is a tale of two cities. It’s a city of very rich people and very poor people . . . A city losing its soul. Sleek, black Uber cars that whisk hipsters from bar to bar . . . Thirteen-dollar sandwiches. Google Glass. That’s your opening paragraph, visiting journalists. You’re welcome.”

The question of whether rampant social inequality is changing San Francisco is a straightforward one, and the answer to it is yes. Yes, tech money is driving the freaks, the queers, the broke artists and ordinary working-class families out of the city, helped along by 30 years of backward housing policies, greedy landlords and inefficient social care. That much is obvious.

What is just as interesting to those with an eye on the digital future is how the local politics of San Francisco is changing technology. The industry that is having the most profound effects on the way all of us live, that is changing what it means to be social, has its geographic hub in a place where social tensions have never been higher.

When “techies” and tech reporters talk about San Francisco, what they usually mean is a small chunk of this already small city – the central bustle of the Mission, the Tenderloin and the sprawling former docklands south of Market Street (SoMa). Twitter is located here, thanks to a generous tax break from the city authorities; it’s where lots of the start-ups are based, and it’s where a great many of the tens of thousands of new tech employees who have moved here in the past few years are choosing to live. It’s also where the tension between the dazzling digital future and the grotty hypocrisy of the present is most cartoonish.

On my first day, walking past a pop-up futurist conference called Quantum Leap, I am obliged to step around several homeless men sleeping in the baking sun. A few yards away, in the line for artisanal coffee whose $20 price tag is apparently justified by a special brewing method, young entrepreneurs discuss their starting salaries while an elderly woman dressed in grimy plastic bags yells, “How dare you?” at nobody in particular. San Franciscans are rightly annoyed when recent visitors boggle at their city’s social contradictions. Unfortunately, it’s the first thing you notice. When you get used to not noticing it – because otherwise you’d never be able to drink your coffee and get on with your day – that’s a different problem altogether.

There is something slightly creepy about the bourgeois cybertopia of Start-up City, all hi-tech doodahs and rustic jumpers. Valencia Street is where good hipsters go when they die. There are a lot of little dogs, but not a lot of little children. There are artisanal cheese parlours, “destination” bakeries and tasteful shops where you can buy a variety of specialist instruments for disappearing up your own backside, or those of others. The weather is always beautiful, a perpetual late spring where it’s never quite cold enough to wear your fanciest overcoat.

It’s all a little bit Pleasantville – if you ignore the vagrants, addicts and angry activists. That’s the sort of ignoring that takes practice. “In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the centre of the city,” wrote Greg Gopman, a former start-up CEO, on his Facebook wall last December. “There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us.” One of his friends replied that the presence of so many homeless people was an embarrassment when “we’re supposed to be a gleaming utopia of what a city could be”.

There are half a million long-term homeless people in the US, and a third of them live in California. Still suffering from the stripping of inpatient mental health facilities in the Reagan years, people with nowhere else to go often find themselves in downtown San Francisco, with its clement weather – specifically, they find themselves in SoMa and the Tenderloin, which is where many of the non-profits set up to meet their needs are based.
 

****
 

Howard Street, where I’m staying, has many short-term-occupancy hotels and charity hostels. The street reeks of excrement; the lack of public toilets is an ongoing problem, and the many homeless people in the area have no choice but to relieve themselves in the street. Next door to the bedsit hostels is Startup House, a dormitory-style live-work space where hopeful young tech entrepreneurs from outside the city can rent a bunk bed for more than the cost of an apartment in other American cities. Over two weeks I lose count of the times I am warned, as a small white woman, not to walk down the street by myself; there is a sense of mutual hostility, of different communities that, with more or less reason, can’t look one another in the eye.

The place where I’m staying is a repurposed warehouse full of artists and start-up kids, all of them progressive, alternative weirdos who would be weirder still in a town where rainbow-coloured hair, veganism and a fondness for music that goes bleep weren’t entirely mainstream. They have far more in common with me, a foreign reporter from thousands of miles away, than they do with their next-door neighbours. I know them (how else?) from the internet, and they would probably be perplexed to hear anyone describe them as cool kids – like nearly everyone else in this city, they see themselves as outsiders, as people who have fought hard to find their place in a mean and vicious world. They are still fighting.

Tale of two cities: San Franciso's hi-tech boom is widening the gulf between rich and poor

My friends aren’t millionaires but some of their friends are, and they’re all hustling to make enough money to stay in the city where some of them have lived since they were born. Half of them are running a new company together through Y Combinator, the most prestigious of the start-up “accelerators” that lend seed capital to fledgling companies and that helped launch Airbnb, Dropbox and Scribd, along with hundreds of companies that haven’t made millions.

Bay Area venture capitalism has its own dialect; the frequency with which people employ it is a reasonable indicator of how much of the Kool-Aid they’ve drunk. That’s another buzzword, as it happens; during the last tech boom, the catchphrase “Keep drinking the Kool-Aid” was used by dotcom workers encouraging one another to stay in the game, a reference both to the Jonestown massacre and to Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In the San Francisco of legend, the one I grew up reading about, the drugs were acid, sex and weed. Now the artists are off their heads on calamity capitalism and very expensive coffee.
 

****
 

“Make something people want”, the Y Combinator slogan, is one of the unofficial mottoes of Startupland. On Folsom and Ninth, behind a nondescript warehouse door, is Heavybit – a start-up incubator hosting newborn companies that are designing widgets and magic gizmos straight out of Star Trek. “Incubator” is the right word; this is an intensive-care nursery of Bay Area capitalism, where baby start-ups are tended to by mentors and investors and kept functioning with a constant supply of coffee and nutrition bars.

The young people working here are fashionable, multiracial, excited. I’m not allowed to tell you what they’re developing. When I ask, several hardware engineers compete to come up with things they might be making: “America’s first unicorn breeding programme!” “Instagram for cats!” “A fitness tracker for your invisible friend!”

“Start-up kids” aren’t all white and Asian men in their twenties and thirties but that’s mostly who we’re talking about. The conversation about why the tech boom has rewarded a very specific, privileged demographic is everywhere in San Francisco, in cafés and bars and on the blogs and journalism start-ups read by the scene, and the reasons given are always the same: women didn’t learn to code early enough, black and Hispanic families don’t value education in the same way. Tech success is most likely to look like a nerdy white guy in a hoodie – a lot like the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Of course, not every Bay Area bazillionaire is a nerdy white, middle-class guy in a hoodie, but enough of them are that the class, gender and racial disparities are uncomfortably obvious, especially if you’re new in town.

SoMa is the Wall Street of the Twenty-Teens, populated by venture capitalists and well-dressed young hopefuls, although that’s likely to mean a slightly more expensive hoodie rather than a suit. Smart, ambitious young people now go into tech in the way that they once went into banking – because their mothers told them to go the hell out there and make some money.

“This new breed, they’re not hackers,” says Jamie Zawinski, who left the tech industry to run the DNA Lounge, one of the most popular music venues downtown. “Not in the true, original sense of the word. They’re not interested in taking things apart, in exploring, in building things. They got into this line of work because someone told them it was a good career, and it’s disgusting – and that’s why I don’t do it any more.”

Zawinski was one of the founders of Netscape, “the first web browser that mattered”, and is often touted as an example of a techie who has worked to keep San Francisco’s vaudevillian weirdscape alive and dancing, rather than just getting out with his pile.

“I’m interested in building things, in how technology can change the world and the way we interact with each other, and how these weird little prosthetics they’re building can improve your life,” Zawinski says. “They’re interested in cashing out. Fifty per cent of their conversation is about finances. I don’t think they even realise it. It’s a dramatic failure of imagination.”

He warms to his theme. “That’s all any of these fuckers talk about. It’s disgusting. They’re just so focused on cashing out and making money, not actually building anything real, just working hard enough to get by. That changed around ’97, ’98, but it got really bad about four years ago. It’s the second bubble.”

There are two things every child knows about bubbles: they are beautiful, and they burst. Time and again, I am told that San Francisco is “a bubble” – referring both to the gorgeous, insular never-neverland where workers in the city’s tech and associated industries live and play and to the localised economic boom that has fuelled the fat years. Those who have been around for a decade or more remember what happened when the dotcom bubble of the 1990s finally popped: a lot of people lost their jobs and homes, and rental prices in the city came down, but not drastically. Rents are now higher than ever – rising more than three times faster than the national average – and despite intra-industry deals of dubious legality to keep tech wages down, they show no sign of dropping.

Zawinski is right: money is more important than ever to San Francisco’s fast-moving youth cohort. But if you lived in the most expensive city for yuppies in America, where you need a $70,000 salary just to pay your debts and make the rent, you might be worried about money, too.

“We want to make money because here, we have to,” says one photographer who now works as an engineer at a start-up, and hence is able to afford lunch. “By here, I mean San Francisco, but also America. Our generation is fucked. We’ll get no social security, we have no retirement, no savings, no job security.”

The young people entering the tech industry today are of a generation that does not necessarily long for riches, but desperately wants to be able to afford a decent standard of living without having to avoid its reflection in the mirror every morning.

“Most of us tech people will never be the 1 per cent,” says the photographer. “We’re aiming for the 10 per cent, which might allow us to have our parents’ lifestyle. We’re just trying to get by in a world that’s not giving us the same chances the baby boomers had. What did I do as an artist? I went and got an engineering degree.”

Sometimes when you’re dying of thirst, you have to drink the Kool-Aid.

If today’s tech industry is what yesterday’s financial sector was, there is one important difference. In finance, making money is the ideology, as well as the effect of that ideology. By contrast, much of the tech sector is driven by an ethos that is liberal, or at least progressively libertarian – it’s supposed to be about making things, breaking things, challenging conventional power and its monopoly over information. It’s about disruption.

There are even decent numbers of self-described anarchists filing on to the unmarked Google buses that have become the default symbol of how tech money is taking over the city. (I won’t go on about them here, in case I fall foul of the San Francisco Chronicle, but the short version is that these buses, which ferry workers from the city to the tech giants’ suburban campuses, have become the focus of the campaign against new money.)

At the heart of the San Franciscan tech industry is a paradox. It’s a paradox about creativity coming to terms with its place in capitalism. Hacking, computer engineering, the entire ethos of changing the world with communications technology, is supposed to be about more than money – but money is what a job for a big tech firm now means. And money changes things. “Don’t be evil” was the mantra of Google, but there is some anxiety that “evil”, or at least callousness, is attaching itself to tech corporations anyway. Google, like other Bay Area firms, is anxious to preserve its benign social reputation; none of its employees was allowed to speak to me on the record about gentrification and cultural anxiety. Tech workers don’t want to see the Mission emptied of poor families. But it’s happening anyway.

Tech still sees itself as an upstart industry challenging power, even when it has become that power. It sees itself as a field of outsiders, which is why it is difficult for tech workers to comprehend that they are now the privileged insiders who are resented by artists and communities of colour. The graffito “Techies go home”, scrawled on the sidewalk outside one business in Oakland, was posted on Twitter by an angry, anguished tech worker who explained that she was “born here”.

San Francisco’s growing inequality has been described, inaccurately, as a culture war; in fact, it’s a simple class war. The cultural anxiety is experienced almost entirely by tech workers, their associates and friends. Most of the tech entrepreneurs you meet in San Francisco are alternately embarrassed and defiant about money, whether they have it or merely hope to have it, and struggling to come to terms with what that money is doing to the city they love. In line for another overpriced coffee – hey, I never said the Kool-Aid wasn’t tasty – another start-up employee tells me he’s thinking about making a video game based on gentrification. The gamer would play a local
resident trying to build schools and cheap grocery stores as the incoming bourgeoisie sets up cocktail bars. It’s a joke. It isn’t meant to be cruel.
 


 

Bubbles are fragile, but from the outside they can seem hard to breach. I take a drive through the city with my friend Meredith, another artist who is struggling to stay afloat in San Francisco. “Financially, this city just exhausts creative people that don’t have a lot of money supporting their art, somehow. Everybody else is hustling constantly just to break even.” Her current sublet – a small, leaky room with no kitchen on a houseboat in Sausalito, for $600 a month – is up in 30 days. She still hasn’t found another place to live. “I don’t know if I’ll stay.”

Meredith is a fixture on the San Francisco arts scene, the former editor of the underground magazine Coilhouse, and a recording artist on, of all things, the theremin. “I spend a lot of time staring at the city from across the bridge,” she says. “I spend a lot of time wishing I felt like I belonged.”

Artists aren’t the only people locked out of this “gleaming utopia”. Raquel Donoso, of the Latino Community Foundation, tells me that “about 40 per cent of Latino families do not have a computer and internet access at home. That included East Palo Alto. This is in Silicon Valley, where there’s tremendous opportunities and tons of money. People are losing their jobs and they can’t even get unemployment insurance, because everything is online. Our families are basically locked out of that world.”

There is nothing wrong with making things that people want. The problem is that personhood and desire are constrained by capital; money affects whose wants appear to matter. The kids in Startup House may want a pizza delivery drone, but not in the same way low-income families want health care, or the elderly men lying in their own faeces on Howard Street want a safe place to sleep. There is nothing wrong with making things people want. It’s just that too little attention is being paid to the things people need.

The wants and needs of young, healthy, middle-class people with connections and a reasonable amount of spare cash are overrepresented among Start-up City’s priorities. For one thing, those are the problems with solutions that sell. For another, given a few million dollars and a team of semi-geniuses, those problems are easy to solve. Structural social injustice and systemic racism are harder to tackle – and that’s where the tech sector has, until recently, thrown up its hands.

“We can’t do anything about it” is what I hear, time and time again, from business representatives and rich individuals. And no – individuals can’t do a great deal about 30 years of awful housing policies and structural tax exemptions that prevent wealth from being redistributed. But corporations that are now wealthier than many national economies might be able to do something.

Google, in response to the Google bus protests, has just announced a scheme to subsidise public transport for schoolchildren. It’ll cost millions, but that’s a snip for a firm that earned $16.86bn in the last quarter of 2013. “I don’t think that just because gentrification happens, people can sit back and say it’s OK,” Donoso says. “Forcing people out of their homes is not OK. We have to have a discussion about what kind of community we want to build and live in, and how to maintain that community.”
 

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“Eviction after 20 years”, reads a hand-drawn sign in an apartment window on Market Street. A few doors down, the shopfronts of the late-night Whole Foods – an expensive organic supermarket which is, apparently, also a major cruising spot – display large, stylish posters of smiling peasant farmers in faraway countries with cheerful motifs about “ending poverty”. Poverty many thousands of miles away can and should be alleviated, preferably with a small donation at the checkout. Poverty that you have to step over to get into your office is disturbing, and then embarrassing, and then – finally – annoying.

The likes of Google and Twitter make much of their commitment to philanthropy. Until recently, however, that generosity has not extended to their own backyard.

“Think about the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Fords. Even here in the city, Levi Strauss started here,” Donoso says. “All of those businesses really made philanthropy a part of their DNA and it was about solving our local issues. I don’t necessarily see that in the [hi-tech] sector. People see themselves as more global.”

A large part of what political theorists term “the Californian Ideology” – a heady brew of progressive techno-libertarianism and laissez-faire capitalism – is based on lack of faith in governments to solve social problems. “The centre of power is here,” said the venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya during last year’s US government shutdown, in an interview with the website This Week in Startups. “Where value is created is no longer in New York, it’s no longer in Washington, it’s no longer in LA. It’s in San Francisco and the Bay Area . . . Companies are transcending power now. We are becoming the eminent vehicles for change and influence, and capital structures that matter.”

“This anti-government ethos is really troubling and short-sighted on the part of those techies who hold it,” says Gary Kamiya, a journalist and lifelong San Franciscan and the author of the guidebook Cool Gray City of Love. “They don’t understand certain basic things about how society functions, like the concept of the tragedy of the commons – that if everybody is only out for themselves, you’re unable to come together to create things that can only be done by joint action.”

For the luckier San Franciscans, the argument that techno-capitalism is a good substitute for the state isn’t hard to make – not when their employers provide everything social democrats expect the state to supply, from transport and health care to yoga rooms, video arcades and laundry service at the office. There is little reason to believe in solving local problems collectively when evidence of the failure of collectivism is sleeping in the sun on every sidewalk.

What would the tech industry look like if it weren’t being cannibalised by capitalism? According to Mitch Altman, an inventor and founder of the Noisebridge hackerspace in the Mission, it would be much more exciting. “In the hacker scene all over the world, the vast majority are doing things because they think it’s awesome – they love it, they’re passionate about it,” says Altman, who is a figurehead of the hackerspace movement, a global network of free spaces where people of all abilities can work together on tech, art and engineering projects. “When people do things because they love it, they’re putting things into the world that wouldn’t be there. Not every techie is rich. Some of them are scraping by on a few hundred dollars a month, and some are squatting.”

Noisebridge has been open since 2007, and is tucked away above a taquería in the middle of the Mission, where gentrification is doing its worst cultural violence. Up a dingy flight of stairs is a wide, bright space, stuffed to the rafters with arcane computer components, matchstick sculptures, 3D printers and wired-looking young people typing frenetically on many-stickered laptops. It looks like a scene from a mid-Nineties movie about hackers.

“There’s a reason why Noisebridge started in the Bay Area,” says Altman, whose long, greying hair is dyed pink and blue. “Since the Gold Rush this has been a place which has attracted weirdos. That’s one of the reasons I love it here. I’m a total misfit and I love being surrounded by misfits. The people who live here mostly really want to live here, even though the people who are moving in with lots of money with Google jobs and things like that [also] want to be here.”

There are still a great many people in the Bay Area who believe that information should be free, even when a two-bedroomed flat in the Haight is eye-wateringly expensive. There are still hackers and engineers whose first priority is to take the lid off society and put it back together more efficiently, and those hackers, according to Altman, “need community. Even introverted geeks need community, and it’s hard to find community. It’s always going to be hard work.”

Community is the key. The biggest tech firms in the Bay Area have capitalised on the social value of community. From Google, Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and WhatsApp, the power of networks is being monetised even as the communities in which those businesses are based twist and change. What they are trying to work out now – what everyone in the Bay Area is trying to work out – is what it means to build community. “It isn’t as if there is a template or an accepted rule for how we’re all supposed to be members of a polis,” Kamiya says. “A city is a very peculiar thing.”

San Francisco is more peculiar than most. For better or worse, the class and cultural anxieties of this city are sending ripples around the globe. Tech is not what’s tearing San Francisco apart. America is what’s tearing San Francisco apart – America, and the vanishing chance it offers its citizens to build pleasant lives without brutalising others by proxy. The paradox at the heart of the hi-tech industry, the struggle between idealism and the inhumanities of capital, will leave its mark on the technologies future generations inherit. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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