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Sorry, David, you’re not the man to lead Labour

The elder Miliband continues to defend an appalling breach of trust over Iraq.

The New Statesman editorial endorsing Ed Miliband for Labour leader described the decision to invade Iraq as "a great wrong, a moral failure". His brother's support for the war, it implied, was one of the reasons he does not qualify to be the change candidate that Labour and Britain needs. But the British voter is not an especially moral creature. If it was just a matter of right or wrong, however great, David Miliband might lose my vote as well as the NS's support, but he would certainly remain capable of winning an election.

What is summed up in the word "Iraq", however, remains a determining political issue. David's record on it will prevent him from winning a general election. I like David. I admire his energy and he seems to me to be more thorough, hard-working and professional than the other candidates, and to have a greater grasp of policy. These qualities have helped him gain a staggering range of endorsements across the UK media from the Financial Times to the Evening Standard, as the man they can do business with. But the legacy of the Iraq decision overshadows all this. It feeds into quite fundamental issues of trust and the role of the state. Labour will be forced to shape up on both issues to if it is to win back the decisive sectors of the electorate whose vote is not predetermined by party loyalty. David will be skewered.

First, trust. For Labour to win, its leader has to be able to give an honourable account of him or herself. The technical justification for the war was Saddam Hussein's possession of WMDs, weapons of mass destruction, and his refusal to surrender his alleged stockpiles despite UN resolutions requiring him to do so. David said at the NS hustings that if he'd known then that there were not, after all, WMDs in Iraq, he would not have supported the war. Or, to put it another way, that he originally supported it in good faith and let's move on. This positioning -- the decision was wrong but personally he was not -- is hardly honest, even on the narrowest of grounds.

No one who followed it believed that the war was fought because Saddam had WMDs. Tony Blair, as is well documented, had decided soon after 9/11 to support George W Bush, whatever he did. And, as Michael Elliott reported in Time magazine, in February 2002 Bush put his head around the door of a meeting at the White House where three US senators were being briefed by Condi Rice, and told them, "Fuck Saddam, I'm taking him out."

A year later, after Saddam had indeed been taken out, Paul Wolfowitz, one of the war's architects, told Vanity Fair that they settled on WMDs as the casus belli "for bureaucratic reasons". Yes, many intelligence experts thought Saddam had kept some rusting weapons. But no one believed they represented a danger to the west. The exaggeration was worse than contrived.

Take just one example, still unreported because it exposes the Blair regime's clinical disregard for truth: the British government stated in the executive summary of its September 2002 report, "As a result of intelligence we judge that Iraq has continued to produce chemical and biological agents". Blair sexes this up in his foreword: "What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons."

In fact, it was impossible for Saddam to have been producing new chemical agents, let alone chemical weapons, without this being observed by surveillance. The toxicity of the vapours demands massive ventilation for any level of manufacture, and this would have been identified. (See the openDemocracy interview with Ron Manley, who oversaw the destruction of Saddam's chemical armoury after 1991, but was never asked to share his expertise, though still attached to the Ministry of Defence.)

In other words, it is not just that Hans Blix, the head of the UN weapons inspection team, should have been given more time. The UK government was not interested in investigating the seriousness of the alleged "threat" of WMDs. They were a bogey that was itself contrived. Saddam was overthrown because the US knew he was weak, not because he was a danger. For someone in David's position to suggest even now, in public, that had they known there were no WMDs in Iraq the invasion would not have been justified, perpetuates an untruth, namely that the motive of ridding the world of Saddam's WMDs was genuine. The government misled the public about its reason for the war. By pretending otherwise, David continues to justify an appalling breach of confidence.

Room for redemption?

It remains an abuse of trust that angers the principled right, which draws on Britain's military folklore. The Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Independent all supply readers with allegiance to this tradition and they are not going to allow Labour to forget it. Were he to become the party's head, David would be inescapably identified as an apologist and accomplice of the betrayal of Britain's military integrity.

We all make mistakes, especially in politics. People must be allowed to redeem themselves; otherwise, everyone gets trapped in sectarian shallowness. If David had said that the line on WMDs deceived him, he would at least have opened up a space between himself and the perpetrators of the concoction. More important, there was a decisive moment when he could have redeemed himself on Iraq.

On 12 November 2007, Gordon Brown made his first full-scale speech as prime minister setting out his approach to international affairs. He called for "hard-headed internationalism", opposed anti-Americanism and didn't mention Iraq. But as he went out of his way to regret that the international community had not taken action over the Rwanda genocide, the omission of the invasion of Mesopotamia was a clear signal that he wanted to distance himself from it. Typically, Brown did so while failing to be decisive.

The next day Brown's attempts at "renewal" were ambushed. His new foreign secretary was asked by the BBC whether the "same decision" on Iraq would still have been made under Brown's new direction. "Absolutely," David Miliband replied, and he insisted: "No one is resiling from the original decision."

Colin Brown's report in the Independent went on to say that Labour critics of the war were "disappointed". This is an understatement. At the time, David knew just as well as he does now that Saddam had no WMDs. But he didn't mention the fact as having any bearing; his support for the invasion was 100 per cent pure Blair and he locked his successor in to it.

Two points follow. First, a question: what has led David to change his mind between 2007 and 2010? Even his apparently low-key, technical positioning, that he would not have supported the invasion had he known there were no WMDs, is inconsistent and unsustainable. He backed it unconditionally well after he knew.

Second, he has a direct responsibility for the fact that Labour has not been able to put Iraq behind it. Earlier in the summer, he gave an eloquent Keir Hardie lecture. Looking back over the immediate past he said, "I agreed completely with Gordon Brown, when he became prime minister in 2007, that we needed renewal. I supported and voted for him. I agreed that we needed greater moral seriousness and less indifference to the excesses of a celebrity-drenched culture . . . But, it didn't happen."

One of the reasons it didn't happen is that David Miliband helped to prevent it from happening. He supported the previous celebrity prime minister when Brown sought change. In 2003 he was only a junior member of the team. By 2007, as foreign secretary, he shared responsibility for Labour failing to renew itself by backing the Iraq decision 100 per cent.

Talk versus walk

Jon Cruddas, who voted for the war, like so many of David's supporters, says the Keir Hardie address was one of the factors that persuaded him to endorse David. When James Purnell resigned from the cabinet in 2009 because Brown was sure to lead Labour to defeat, Cruddas gave a speech to a Compass conference. He ridiculed the arguments of the Purnell faction, who said they agreed entirely with Brown's policy but not his leadership. They were, literally, he mocked, "rebels . . . without a cause"!

It was a brilliantly funny rebuke. But was Cruddas demanding that they embrace different policies or was he telling them not to take a stand? For while Cruddas sets out his cause, where is the rebellion? From Iraq to 42 days' internment without trial, when push comes to politics, Cruddas, like David, has the rhetoric but not the will to strike.

Below the Plimsoll line of acting honestly, there is the great bulk of public opinion. Historically, Iraq was a unique war in terms of popular support. With appeasement in 1938, Prime Minister Chamberlain had most of the public behind him, even though he was wrong. When Winston Churchill was defiant and far-sighted in 1940, he had wide public and cross-party backing. When Anthony Eden launched the Suez expedition (also dishonestly), the assault on Egypt was popular, even though the strategy was disastrous. Over the Falklands, Margaret Thatcher had public opinion on her side, whatever you thought about fighting in the South Atlantic. Throughout the cold war, the British overwhelmingly backed deterrence. But with Iraq, for the first time, the government committed the country to a major conflict while millions marched against it despite the leadership of both main parties and most of the press.

Britain's informal constitution has at least two abiding rules -- unwritten, of course -- that have ensured its longevity. The first is to ensure broadly speaking popular consent for the regime and its wars. Consent can be highly manipulated and is different from democracy. Arguably, certainly from the point of view of a political elite, it is better to have consent without democracy than democracy but not consent. In the case of Iraq, Britain had neither.

That was bad enough. But the second informal understanding of the British regime is that while the public is foolishly conservative or dangerously populist and generally grasping, short-sighted but foolishly in love with conventional forms of power, the elite are wiser, more far-sighted and know what is best. It is the validity of this presumption that allows the country's rulers to retain consent over the long run.

With Iraq, this state of affairs was turned upside down. The real, unspoken reason for the Chilcot inquiry is to work out what do to re-establish the credibility of a military, administrative and intelligence establishment that got it completely wrong.

How wrong, and it is good to be reminded, was summed up before the war by an obscure Democratic politician in Chicago who, despite his ambition, broke ranks with his party and, in effect, spoke for millions in his own and our country when he said about Saddam Hussein:

He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He's a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbours, that the Iraqi economy is in a shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.

David Miliband went along with the Blair view that the millions who thought this didn't "get it" when we took to the streets on 15 February to protest against the coming invasion. In fact, the millions were wise and he was dumb.

General crisis

What David needs to explain, therefore, is not just why he was wrong, but why we the public got it right. The issue is not only about him and his judgement, but his explanation, as the would-be leader of a democratic Britain, of why, when the public was right, we were ignored. The public being not just Labour supporters but also the hated Lib Dems, patriotic Conservatives, Greens, Scottish Nationalists, Robin Cook, Diane Abbott and, indeed, Uncle Tom Cobly as well as President Chirac, Chancellor Schröder, Joschka Fischer, Barack Obama (they were his words in Chicago) and all. How come we knew what was going on when he didn't? It is the answer to this question that tells us what kind of power (and there are different kinds) he feels he has to represent.

David is now saying that Labour has to be a "movement" and he is funding a thousand citizen campaigners to help achieve this. But Labour was rarely, if ever, more of a movement than in February 2003. Even a majority of Labour MPs not on the government payroll voted against the war, which was only endorsed by the House of Commons thanks to the Tories. Yes, indeed, a party of the left needs also to be a movement. But a movement has to embody judgements; it has to stand for something. When Labour was last a movement David opposed it. Why does he think that the movement called it right -- and six years later what remained of it then got 42 days right, while he didn't? Perhaps Jon Cruddas can explain.

The question goes to the heart of current British politics. For perhaps the first time since the franchise was cleaned up in 1832, the voting public feels that the political elite do not represent the country. The public has always been justifiably cynical in thinking its leaders support the class system, but at least it was our class system! In the case of Iraq, the elite acted in the interests of Washington and George Bush. They told us that we had to back globalisation for our own good. When the crash came, it turned out that they were representing the bankers, not the British. Then the expenses crisis broke, and the catastrophic decline in trust that followed was less about what some MPs took for themselves than what MPs as a whole permitted.

At first, the freshness and surprise of the coalition made it seem that it would be able to distance itself from this general political crisis. It may find it increasingly hard to sustain this, and it is certainly the case that unlike "sleaze" and John Major's government, the corruption of the Noughties is cross-party.

But it does not follow that Labour is not specifically identified with the abuses of power that marked this century's opening decade. It expanded the powers of the state far too much, threatened our liberties and deployed its powers on behalf of vested interests, especially international financial ones. The public knew this, has not forgotten and anyway will be reminded of it. In these circumstances, to dismiss the Iraq decision as "the past", as David Miliband does, when it opened the gates, and to belittle the issue of trust that it symbolises, is a strategic failure of political judgement. In whose name does he want Labour to rule the UK? Because of its reckless statism, from ID cards through subsidising bankers to the Budget deficit, and above all its military adventurism on behalf of the United States, this will be a major front in the coming battle for Labour to re-establish its claim to govern.

Milisisters

The new generation bidding to lead Labour are not interested in having the kind of bunfights that permit the press to destroy them. Inheritors of 13 years in office, they know what it takes to win; the disciplines of ruling come naturally to them (including Diane Abbott). Today, the question is what to do with power once in office and how to build support for any reforms they carry out. Something that Mandelson, Campbell, Brown, Blair et al, for all their skill at "persuasion", were incapable of achieving. Boring as the leadership contest may be to outsiders, this is the underlying seriousness of it.

Delivery, it seems, will not come from internal ideological correctness. Perhaps this is why partnerships seem to go down well in British public life. What are David Cameron and Nick Clegg but a replacement for Blair and Brown? Voters find ideological disputes between party factions weird. They make them feel excluded, and the media hammers "splits". But who isn't familiar with strong personal differences between individuals tied together in a relationship?

In an era when the spectacle demands personalisation yet dislikes the cult of the individual, partnerships, with their human tensions and difficulties, may be inherently attractive. The Blair-Brown diarchy in Downing Street has been replaced by another, and in a similar way the coupledom of the Milibands is an attraction. They are the Williams sisters of Labour Party politics, outsiders delivering a new style and professionalism to the game. Is David the Venus who may win first and Ed the Serena who shows greater determination when pushed to prove himself?

If they can continue to play together while playing each other, Labour could have a winning team. But it is as certain as things ever are in politics that, however much David is an asset in the larger game, he will be an election-loser if he is appointed captain.

Anthony Barnett is co-founder of openDemocracy and co-edits its British blog, OurKingdom.

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.

***

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