The practice of "swatting," or calling in fake threats to activate an aggressive police response to an unwitting home or business, has unfortunately lingered for the past few years. Starting this week, one police department in the United States is rolling out a system targeted directly at this illegal hoax practice.
On its official "swatting" resource site, the Seattle Police Department acknowledges how swatting works, along with the fact that citizens have requested a way to submit their own concerns or worries about being a potential victim. (Full disclosure: after having my own personally identifiable data distributed in a malicious manner, I asked SPD for this very thing... in 2015.)
"To our knowledge, no solution to this problem existed, so we engineered one," SPD's site reads. The site claims that swatting victims are "typically associated with the tech industry, video game industry, and/or the online broadcasting community."
SPD's process asks citizens to create a profile on a third-party data-management service called Rave Facility (run by the company Smart911). Though this service is advertised for public locations and businesses, it supports private residences as well, and SPD offers steps to input data and add a "swatting concerns" tab to your profile.
With that information in hand, SPD says that any police or 911 operator who receives a particularly troubling emergency report and matches it to a location that has already been flagged with a "swatting concerns" notice, will share that information "with first responders to inform and improve their police response to the incident."
“I want five grand or I‘mma kill ‘em all”
The information page doesn't clarify whether SPD has already instituted internal protocol changes with swatting in mind—particularly in how the department handles anonymous VOIP tips about hostage situations and ransom demands. But a linked video in SPD's instructions page, embedded below, appears to include footage of officers remaining vigilant about swatting possibilities.
The video begins with an apparent hostage-situation threat given to a 911 operator. The threat includes a claim of five hostages taken and a ransom demand of "five grand or I'mma kill 'em all." This portion is followed by video footage of SPD officers, timestamped in the early hours of August 24 of this year, saying things like "an online phone app" and "sounds more and more like swatting to me" before approaching an apartment unit's entrance with guns drawn.
This portion of the video concludes with a calm conversation between the officers and the apartment's tenant explaining what kind of threat was phoned in. This is followed by an actor's portrayal of a concerned citizen typing their home address and "swatting concerns" text into Rave Facility's submission pages; the video concludes with this actor playing video games, hearing a knock at the door, and answering it, only to find that it's a pizza delivery, not a police officer with a gun drawn.
However, that "fill out a form, be left alone by cops" sequence is a bit misleading. The SPD notice page makes clear that "all calls" will still receive standard police response, whether or not any swatting concerns are filed. "Nothing about this solution is designed to minimize or slow emergency services," the site reads. "At the same time, if information is available, it is more useful for responding officers to have it than to not."
In addition to a high-profile swatting attempt aimed at a Parkland-shooting survivor this past June, recent malicious attacks on tech and online personalities have evolved to some extent—or devolved, depending on how you look at it.
Last month, popular gaming streamer DrDisRespect filed a police report alleging that his house had been shot at during his stream of the latest Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 beta test; this followed his abrupt closure of a stream as he claimed, "I've got to end the broadcast right now. Someone shot at our house."
“Very clearly swatted”
Update, 8:19pm ET: According to Seattle Police Department Public Affairs Director Sean Whitcomb, the effort to build an anti-swatting tool for residents began taking shape in June of this year. That was shortly after "a community member reached out to us and asked if there was any way for us to, how should I phrase this, have a record of their residence in the event a swatting incident took place." From there, SPD staffers began talking to officers and 911 dispatchers before being directed to the department's private partner for data references, the aforementioned third-party company Smart911.
The issue, however, is that Smart911's default system, which lets police departments flag issues at a specific address and phone number (pets, allergies, elderly residents, special-needs residents, etc.), is designed more for legitimate reports of crimes or fires. Meaning, it doesn't work in the case of anonymous or spoofed phone numbers calling in hoax threats. Whitcomb tells Ars Technica that his team asked Smart911, "How can we take this platform and customize it to say, 'also in this household, someone who makes a living working at one of our tech companies or in game development or online broadcasting, or they have an elevated profile publicly'—how can they let us know there's this concern?"
Whitcomb confirms two swatting-related incidents have happened in Seattle since that June flag was raised by a community member. That includes the incident shown in the above video from August 24. He says that the investigation into this swatting attempt is ongoing and that the affected citizen was "very clearly swatted, very specific to the apartment number." An investigation into another swatting attempt, which centered around a Seattle library in August, is also still ongoing, he says.
In today's public notice, Whitcomb emphasized SPD's claim that the department had to "engineer" its answer to the problem of swatting. "If you do an Internet search for 'swatting,'" Whitcomb says. "You'll find a lot of instances of how people are affected, calls for stiffer penalties, and how police investigators have tracked down swatters from all the way across the country when that crime has ended in its most tragic form."
"But you won't find any anti-swatting solutions," he adds.
This is Seattle, right? We’ve got technology here.
In response to general Seattle police practices, especially in cases where someone may not have proactively filed a report about possible swatting, Whitcomb emphasizes his department's standard training protocol for "tactical deescalation and hostage negotiation," along with considerations of "all the little nuances" of a particular report. He cited, as a hypothetical example, a "shots fired" report at a public space that has only been reported once, by a caller from an anonymous phone number. "That might raise some suspicions," he adds. He confirms that new anti-swatting submissions will be considered as another "little nuance" in those instances.
"This phenomenon, which is a national issue, is quite frankly causing a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety in the community that we serve," Whitcomb says. "This is Seattle, right? We've got technology here—video game development, both from big companies and indie studios, and a very rich online broadcasting community. Everything from arts-and-crafts to cooking to video game streaming. We know swatting has ended in tragedy in its most vile form. At its most general form, it's a way to intimidate or harass people. That's just wrong."