SWAT TEAMS, IN full military protective gear and armed with assault rifles, are being deployed against innocent, unsuspecting citizens all over the United States. Ten days ago, it was Kyle Giersdorf, alias Bugha, a 16-year-old Twitch streamer and reigning Fortnite champion, in Upper Pottsgrove Township, Pennsylvania. Giersdorf was unhurt—in part because an officer recognized him from around town and defused the situation. Last Wednesday, it was Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, in King County, Washington. Her son was home alone, sleeping. Last weekend, it was a resident of Lancaster, Ohio, who had not shot his girlfriend or taken children hostage. This Monday, it was somebody in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after a 911 caller wrongly reported a shooting and possible homicide at their address.
All of these people are the latest victims of an internet-age crime called swatting, in which bad actors sic the police on a fellow internet user who has angered, offended, or simply annoyed them.
It’s one of the worst “pranks” imaginable, with sometimes deadly consequences. It started as a niche crime, seldom seen or discussed outside of the gaming community. Swatting battering-rammed its way into the national conversation two years ago, after LA-based gamer Tyler Bariss, peeved over a Call of Duty dispute, attempted to send the police to another player’s door in Wichita, Kansas. Instead, he sent them to the home of total stranger Andrew Finch, who was fatally shot in the confusion. Even now, few officials seem to have any idea what to do about swatting.
EMMA GREY ELLIS COVERS MEMES, TROLLS, AND OTHER ELEMENTS OF INTERNET CULTURE FOR WIRED.
One exception: Seattle. As of last October, the Seattle Police Department has maintained an anti-swatting registry that lets people who fear being swatted give the police advance warning by adding the concern to a profile associated with their address—in much the same way you might add a note about a serious allergy, a child with autism, or pets in the house in case of fire. If an officer is dispatched to your address, they’ll see your profile and proceed with appropriate caution. According to Sean Whitcomb, the registry’s inventor and a sergeant at the police department, it was a fast and easy fix. “We had it launched in three months, which is light speed for any government bureaucracy,” he says. The registry simply adapts an existing Rave Mobile Safety product the police department already had the rights to—a system that connects a 911 call to the profile of a specific address. “It’s a great use case and didn’t require any tech changes from us,” says Katharine Dahl, Rave Mobile Safety’s senior director of product marketing.
Simple as the solution is, it took a string of coincidences to get it started. First, Seattle is a tech hub: “We have Microsoft in our backyard, Amazon in our downtown tour, and tons of people who stream on YouTube, Mixer, and Twitch,” Whitcomb says. Second, Whitcomb is “a big gamer,” someone who was familiar with swatting and how it impacts not just gamers but anyone with an elevated online persona.
Third, a Seattle resident who is, Whitcomb says, “a well-known internet celebrity” reached out to Whitcomb, asking if there was anything the police department could do to ensure they weren’t swatted. “Swatting truly is terrifying,” the internet celebrity, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, tells WIRED. “You can just be having a meal with your family and a SWAT team arrives, yelling, guns out. It’s something that won’t just affect you but also every living thing inside of your home. What if my dog runs at a SWAT officer? My dog probably ends up dead. I wanted to see if anything could be done.” Many of this person’s friends, who are also prominent online content creators, have been swatted.
The internet celebrity, expecting a “sorry to hear about that” brush-off, was surprised by the department’s support. “They’re not asking for the world, they’re not asking for round-the-clock protection,” Whitcomb says. “They’re making a really simple request that some would argue we’re obligated to provide.” (One swatting victim, who also asked to remain anonymous, mentioned that they really wanted to send Sergeant Whitcomb some cupcakes.) The registry has been well-received by the Seattle Online Broadcasters Association, which includes many social media creators. “This tool makes Seattle a uniquely safe place to live for online broadcasters,” says the association’s partner relations director, James Feore, who spreads the word about the registry to the communities most likely to need it. “The only feedback I’ve gotten is, ‘Why hasn’t the rest of the region started doing this as well?’ It seems like a no brainer.”
Whitcomb agrees. “To be quite honest, the registry wasn’t designed for Seattle only,” he says. “We designed it in the hopes that the simplicity of the registry could be replicated easily in other jurisdictions.” Though he maintains the system has been a success, Whitcomb was unable to provide metrics or more specifics about how the system identifies potential swatting calls, fearing any information divulged could be gamed by would-be swatters. According to Dahl at Rave Mobile Safety, any departments using the system should be able to adapt it easily, and—if there was enough interest—they’d consider developing an anti-swatting system as a separate product. The holdup, in most people’s opinion, is simple ignorance: “Even if you’re super-proactive, it’s my experience that the average person you’re engaging with is not aware of this issue,” says an expert in government IT systems with knowledge of swatting, who requested anonymity for security concerns.
Most police departments don’t prioritize the at-risk online personalities in their communities. “Departments don’t know where to put this information when they get it,” says the IT professional. “In a smaller department, it might have to be held by individual staff, in their memory or a Post-It note.” The personal experience of Caroline Sinders, an online harassment researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School, confirms that. Because of Sinders’ high-profile work on Gamergate, her mother’s home was targeted by swatters multiple times, even though, at Sinders’ encouragement, her mother had already alerted her local police department that she was at risk. Police never filed a report about the incidents. When Sinders’ mother returned to the police department to make a report herself, no one even knew what she was talking about—until an officer who happened to be part of the SWAT team recognized her. Sinders would welcome wider adoption of a Seattle-style system. “When it comes to anti-swatting measures,” she says, “there is no bad thing you can do other than give the police more surveillance tools.”
The ignorance about this crime, even among the people liable to be tricked into participating in it, is typical. Public officials and legislators lagging behind in their understanding of technological innovations and the cultural changes they bring is bog standard in the US, and that puts a limit on what even proactive people like the Seattle police department can accomplish.
Seattle’s system is preventative; catching the criminals is the difficult task of another department. Complicating matters, raising awareness of swatting is often so haphazardly handled that it leads to additional grief for victims. Ijeoma Oluo has experienced a crescendo of harassment after voicing her swatting frustrations on Twitter. When elaborating on their request for anonymity, the Seattle-area content creator says, “Speaking with press probably scares me more than anything I do. Not because I don’t trust people but because once it’s out there, it’s out there—and could potentially ruin my life.”
Not only can law enforcement do little to help, the laws themselves can’t either. “Basic protections against cyberhate and harassment don’t capture newer behaviors like swatting and doxing. They are not covered under Washington law, or in any states’,” say Miri Cypers, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Northwest chapter. “Victims don’t even know if swatting is criminal or how to hold people accountable.” Cypers is concerned that laws and policy won’t be able to keep pace with how online hate evolves. She is seeking partnerships with the gaming industry and online platforms in an attempt to curb harassment before it slips offline and into unwitting police departments.
Of course, as Sinders points out, there is another, simpler way to end swatting before it starts. “The big question is: Why does every city in the United States have militarized police?” The most recent wave of swattings are almost entirely small-town affairs, a sudden blip of weaponized chaos in places with relatively low crime rates. Take away the SWAT team and you’ll end swatting by default.