The generation of adolescents coming of age today, commonly referred to as ‘Generation Z,’ are very tech-savvy at a much earlier age, where their morals and behaviors may have not yet developed.
This dangerous combination of technical ability, coupled with the emotional rollercoasters all teenagers suffer, has started a new trend that exploits a pinhole in our current emergency services communications network.
The practice, commonly referred to as “swatting,” has noticeably increased in recent years. The name derives from callers prompting a SWAT team response to a particular location, after claiming that a serious crime has taken place, such as a mass murder or hostage situation.
The prank is designed to embarrass and traumatize a particular individual, but the practice can very easily turn dangerous, not only for the person being “swatted,” but for police as well.
Related article: Swatting: Is the 911 Network Secure?
This past Tuesday night, in Carmel, Indiana, a 22-year-old nursing student, her father and another friend were placed in handcuffs while police investigated a report of a shooting at their house.
This was the second house to be swatted in central Indiana in the same number of days.
“I have five hostages at my house at this moment. I have two AR-52s, AK-47s and C-4 all around my house,” a caller said on February 16, while giving police a residential address in Zionsville.
The caller demanded $100,000 to be delivered in a clear plastic bag within 45 minutes. Officers from Zionsville, Whitestown and the Boone County Sheriff’s Department surrounded the house.
This is where the situation got ugly, and could have turned deadly.
Police on the scene asked the dispatcher to call the house and ask the people inside to come out. When the dispatcher called, the homeowner hesitated, saying he had received a number of harassing calls during the day—20 such calls in the half hour leading up the police arriving.
“I don’t feel safe right now is what I’m telling you,” the homeowner told the dispatcher, saying he was worried that the prankster had somehow spoofed the caller ID of the police department, getting the occupants to go outside and put themselves at further risk.
Thinking quickly, the dispatcher encouraged the man to hang up and call 911, to reassure him he was talking to police officials. He did, and the 8 occupants decided to come out and meet with officers.
In Indiana, as in many other states, making a false police report is a serious crime. While the technology that allows this senseless crime to happen becomes more openly available, so does the technology necessary to capture the perpetrators.
While swatting incidents are on the rise, so are the arrests of the swatters. In 2013, Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber were both victims of swatting, and the 12-year-old perpetrator was eventually caught, convicted and sentenced to two years in juvenile detention.
The most common method of swatting used today is a through the teletype relay service—traditionally used for people who are deaf, deaf-blind, hard-of-hearing or have speech disabilities. This service turns typed messages sent over a TTY device or online interface into voice messages, allowing people to communicate with anyone, including 911 operators.
Perpetrators might feel that their identity is hidden behind the Internet, or hidden by the TTY/TRS relay operator. However, TTY/TRS services are not anonymous, and police officer and FBI agents can easily track the message’s point of origin.
Perpetrators could try to spoof a caller ID system. However, whenever communications connections are made—regardless of the technology—there is always the potential to leave “breadcrumb trails” that lead investigators back to the source.
While an open Internet exists, it will be impossible to put a stop to swatting. As law enforcement builds their database of convictions, identifying those who choose to play this game will become easier.
Unfortunately for now, swatting remains a deadly game of cat and mouse.