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 diffused 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.