Imagine waking up to the sound of prowlers in your back yard, going to investigate, and finding your home surrounded by SWAT officers armed with assault weapons. The officers quickly arrest you, and as they are getting ready to take you away, someone finally tells them that you are not a drug-crazed murderer, but that the call that brought them there was a hoax. It would be terrifying.
This is precisely what happened to a family in Orange County, CA, according to the OC Register. According to the article, authorities allege that “Randall Ellis, a 19-year-old from Mukilteo, WA, hacked into the county’s 911 system and placed a false emergency call, prompting a fully armed response.”
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. The practice is common enough that it has a name, “SWATting,” and the OC Register claims that it is a national trend among hackers. According to Yahoo! News, Ellis alone is suspected of placing “nearly 200 fake 911 calls to dispatch systems in California, Arizona, Washington, and Pennsylvania.” These fake calls are substantively different from the many prank 911 calls that are placed each year, because they exploit weaknesses in our phone system to make the calls appear to originate from the victim’s home. It is, in a sense, telephone ventriloquism. This makes these calls much more dangerous, too, because it is difficult for dispatchers to know that they are fake.
From a prevention perspective, this sort of crime is particularly frustrating. It misuses scarce police resources and uses the police to terrify ordinary people. Because of the anonymity and distance enjoyed by the criminals, traditional prevention methods are difficult. It is valuable, though, to publicize the fact that the criminal’s safety is false; as Ellis was tracked, others can be too. Additionally, I would love to know where the vulnerability lies; if it is in the phone network, where I suspect it is, it may make sense for citizens to put pressure on phone companies to adopt some sort of technological way to prevent this sort of crime.
Hat tip to slashdot.