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Two years ago, this column warned you of the dangers of “SWAT-ting,” a technological exploit in which hackers (or those with the ability to “spoof” telephone numbers or otherwise fool emergency response networks) simulate emergency calls in order to direct law enforcement officers to a specific address. Often, Voice Over IP (VOIP) and other modern telecommunications methods are used to hide the caller’s true identity. Notably, SWAT-ting was originally invented as a “means of silencing conservatives by liberals.” It has, however, spread to other spheres of cultural influence, becoming just yet another weapon in the griefing arsenal of gamers, computer geeks and script-kiddie almost-hackers who want to find a way to reach through the Internet and harm someone.
Last week, an armed and armored SWAT team was dispatched to a Long Island home because someone lost an Internet-connected game of the popular first-person-shooter, “Call of Duty.” According to the New York Post, the cops “arrived with guns drawn and ready for war – only to find out the call to the cops was an act of revenge by a gamer whom the teen who lives inside had just beaten in an online Call of Duty battle. … The prank caller told police over [the Internet phone-service] Skype that he was Rafael Castillo, 17, of Long Beach – and that ‘I just killed my mother and I might shoot more people,’ cops said. But Castillo was only using virtual firearms in the online video game.”
Castillo was targeted by another player who was angry about losing a game. Police and fire trucks were dispatched to the area, and a two-hour standoff ensued. Police helicopters flew overhead. More than 60 elite Nassau County special operations officers eventually breached the house. What’s more, the cops confiscated Castillo’s computer (despite the fact that he had committed no crime and had not phoned in the incident).
According to law enforcement officers, the gamer who called in the “prank” (who remains at large and unidentified) probably traced Castillo’s IP address in order to get his location and name. Worse, the Long Beach police commissioner claims that SWAT-ting has become a game with a point scale. Those who call in the pranks get different numbers of points depending on the level of police response. “You get points for the helicopter, for the police cars, for the SWAT team, for the type of entry,” he reportedly told CBS.
Last Sunday in Vancouver, police cars surrounded a home after an emergency call was placed through an online relay agency. (Relay services, intended to help those with hearing impairment, are a popular “anonymizer” among pranksters and criminals, creating a cut-out between the caller’s location and the eventual recipient of a phone call or message.) Whoever placed the call claimed to be a 15-year-old boy whose mother had been killed by “four guys with guns” who had set the house on fire. There was no fire and no armed intruders. A teenage resident of the home was “pranked” by other members of an online gaming chat room he frequented.
The Associated Press has tied SWAT-ting specifically to online gamers. Only days ago, South Dakota law enforcement officers responded to a similar call of a teen who had murdered his parents and rigged their home with a bomb. The department in question told reporters that the SWAT-ting phenomenon “is being used by video gamers in a competition where their success is based on the level of response by law enforcement authorities.”
Making the police believe a dangerous situation exists at a given location should not be, in and of itself, a life-threatening condition. The first-responders who come to your home are there ostensibly to protect you, to rescue innocent people from harm that might be inflicted by bad actors. But increasingly, Americans and (their neighbors to the north) are discovering that the armored, masked, helmeted, machine-gun toting men who smash down their doors aren’t interested in rescuing anyone so much as they are interested in neutralizing potential threats. No doubt our nation’s SWAT teams are quite adept at this neutralizing… but this focus on command and control doesn’t leave a lot of room to protect and serve.
“What few have stated outright,” reads the June, 27, 2012, edition of Technocracy, “is that [SWAT-ting] is nothing less than an attempt to murder your target. … Through the years, and driven by the increasing militarization of police forces, a number of innocent citizens have been terrorized, injured, or even killed when they tried to fire back against what they thought were home invaders. This was because police entered their homes unlawfully – most commonly because they were simply at the wrong address (a problem not limited to this country).”
In other words, making the police believe that there is an “active shooter” or hostage situation in someone’s home, truly making them believe it by pretending to be calling from the home in question, is a good way to get someone killed. As we saw during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, our police no longer resemble police at all, but a heavily armed and thoroughly militarized urban control force that has the power to imprison you in your own home without benefit of a warrant or any legal recourse. Police agencies throughout the country are taking advantage of military surplus deals to acquire heavily armored military trucks on the cheap. Everywhere you look, our police look like soldiers, not neighborhood cops, and tales of outrageous police brutality are getting worse.
This trend in SWAT-ting is dangerous and cowardly. It is only a matter of time before innocent people are killed as a result of one of these “pranks.” We should not forget, however, that the only reason SWAT-ting an address is potentially lethal is because the men and women who respond to the calls are ready, willing and (in some cases) even eager to kill the people they find there. When our police become a paramilitary force, we have only ourselves to blame when our citizens become its enemies.
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