Computing Profession

New MacArthur Fellow Takes Aim at Online Harassment, Doxing

MacArthur Foundation Fellow Danielle Citron
Lawyer and digital privacy expert Danielle Citron was named a 2019 MacArthur Foundation Fellow for "addressing the scourge of cyber harassment."

"I thought I was being pranked!"

That was the initial reaction of lawyer and digital privacy expert Danielle Citron when informed she'd been named a 2019 MacArthur Foundation Fellow.

Every year, the MacArthur Fellows Program, also known as the "genius grant," awards $625,000 (paid in five annual installments) to 26 creative and inspirational individuals across a wide variety of disciplines. The recipients are free to use the funds however they deem appropriate to further their research in their diverse fields.

Citron, who hails from Long Island, NY, moved to Boston this past summer to assume a position as a professor of law at the Boston University (BU) School of Law.

Since graduating in 1994 from Fordham University School of Law, Citron has focused her legal expertise on cyber privacy rights and abuses, online harassment, and their implications and impact on individuals' civil liberties, the law, and the First Amendment. Prior to coming to BU, Citron taught at the University Of Maryland Carey School Of Law, where she received the 2018 "UMD Champion of Excellence" award for teaching and scholarship. Citron was also a visiting professor at George Washington Law School in Spring 2017, and a visiting Fordham University School of Law in Fall 2018.

Citron works with numerous civil liberties and privacy rights organizations. She currently serves as vice president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a non-profit founded in 2012 by Holly Jacobs, who had been a victim of revenge porn. CCRI's mission is to raise awareness of online harassment and to advocate for technological, social, and legal reform.

Citron's 2014 book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace chronicles the damage inflicted on women and minorities via the "Deep Fake State" that uses practices like online cyber stalking, revenge porn, cyber mob attacks, and doxing (researching and broadcasting private or identifying information about an individual or organization) to harass their victims, ruin their reputations, undermine their credibility, and threaten their employment, housing, credit rating, and even their physical safety.

In addition to her book, Citron has authored more than 100 articles on cyber privacy and cybercrime. She has traveled the globe for speaking engagements, testified before Congress, and consulted with politicians and presidential candidates on the need to close legal loopholes in existing laws. Citron also vigorously advocates for the need to craft stronger legislation to thwart the most extreme forms of online cyber abuse and invasions of privacy; she also supports cyber abuse victims in the U.S. and worldwide, offering them assistance and speaking on their behalf to raise awareness of their plight.

It was Citron's long-standing leadership and high-profile activism that led the MacArthur Foundation to select her as one of its 2019 Fellows. In a prepared statement, the MacArthur Foundation praised Citron for "addressing the scourge of cyber harassment by raising awareness of the toll it takes on victims and proposing reforms to combat the most extreme forms of online abuse." Citron's work, the Foundation added, is "spurring legal scholars, lawmakers, tech companies, and the public to view in a new light what many have simply accepted as the inevitable dark side of the digital age."

Fighting the Deep State Fake

Citron says the MacArthur Foundation funding will allow her to opt out of teaching at Boston University Law School over the next year or two in order to concentrate on researching and writing a  book on "sexual privacy."  The book, she says, will center on why individuals need to protect their sexual histories and keep them private from businesses and governments in the Digital Age.

This complements Citron's research into the Deep State Fake, technology that enables hackers "to manipulate or fabricate audio and video to depict people saying and doing things that they've never actually said or done," Citron says. "It's existed for years, but it's advancing so rapidly that it will soon become impossible to distinguish Deep State Fakery from what's real."

The impact of Deep State Fakery extends far beyond individuals, and "threatens the truth and more broadly our trust in democratic institutions," Citron asserts.

Citron says she has always been interested in online privacy issues and how destabilizing a force digital technology can be, dating back to her days as a law student in the early 1990s. A decade later, as technology advanced and Internet usage became commonplace, Citron said the number of online cyberattacks targeting women ramped up significantly. These included the posting of deep fake X-rated videos, and the doxing of specific individuals or groups.

Doxing is the practice of searching the Internet for private or difficult to obtain records and background information on a person or group, and then publicizing them without the person's or group's knowledge or consent. Doxing may cause harm or embarrassment, and is certainly a violation of privacy, Citron says. 

"Online abuse, consumer privacy, and cyber bullying is a defining passion for me," Citron says. "I do advocacy work to ensure that the cyber bullies and the Deep State are denied opportunities to abuse women and minorities and destroy lives."

Citron notes that 15 years ago, countries including Russia and Saudi Arabia deployed bots as a mechanism of chasing women offline. Today, the popularity and ubiquity of social media sites combined with technological advances means that Deep Fake videos can go viral in less than 24 hours and cause irreparable damage to people's lives.  

"We have to worry about the 'Liar's Dividend.' In the digital age, lies are long-standing, and misinformation and the faked pornographic materials or the non-consensual publication of private data can live on in perpetuity," Citron says. "While anyone can be a victim, research shows that 96 of all Deep Fakes and X-rated videos involve women."  

Fighting Back

Citron acknowledges that combating Deep Fakes is getting tougher because technology is rapidly advancing to the point where it soon will be "nearly impossible to distinguish between real and fake."

There are no silver bullets or quick fixes. The reality is that people who use the Internet will respond to "click bait," and the business model of the Web is that it makes money on clicks.

Citron's solution is to utilize the law to craft legislation, to teach and shape behavior.

Citron helped Maryland State Senator Jon Cardin draft a bill criminalizing the nonconsensual publication of nude images, which was passed into law in 2014. From 2014 to December 2016, Citron served as an advisor to California Attorney General Kamala Harris as a member of the AG's Task Force to Combat Cyber Exploitation and Violence Against Women. In June 2019, Citron testified before the House Intelligence Committee on the Deep Fake State on combating disinformation via legislation.

She continues to work with various non-profit organizations, like the aforementioned Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, which is teaming with Capitol Hill lawmakers to criminalize digital forgery, the manipulation of digital audio and video.

Citron's outlook combines a healthy mixture of idealism with pragmatism.

In practical terms, Citron understands there is no way to shut down the Deep Fakes from a technology perspective, although technology firms including Amazon, Apple, IBM, Google, and Microsoft, and government organizations like the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), have various security initiatives in the works to try and thwart them. Citron knows waging war against the Deep Fakes and getting X-rated sex  and doxing videos taken down is "very tough."

"You have to respond in a meaningful way and persevere; it's a lot of time and money. Specific services like Reputation Defender and others can help," Citron says. "I argue for legal change, attitude and behavior changes. It's tough. I have no magic strategies. I just keep going."

Laura DiDio is principal analyst at ITIC a research firm based in the Boston area.

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