Sunday, January 07, 2018

Right again, dammit.

Sometimes I hate being right. (I am informed by my wife that this doesn't happen often enough for it to be a real concern, so…) Nonetheless, I knew that this would happen.

If you've read my book—and of course you have!—you may recall that I spent some time talking about the dark, dangerous side of the Internet. I love the Internet, but along with all of the wonderful things it has brought us, there's also quite a lot of ugliness.

An FBI SWAT team training in New York. Image used
under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
Generic license.
I refer, for example, to various forms of bullying: name-calling, vituperative attacks, and malicious threats delivered mostly by folks who revel in their ability to deliver messages of hate while cloaked in the anonymity provided by the Internet. Often this hate is directed at women, of course, but we're all vulnerable; and much more frightening still, our children are vulnerable. (Bullying used to be restricted mainly to schools, but now that kids are pretty much connected 24/7, they're even bullied at home or while out and about. These kids—and some adults—must feel as if there is simply no escape from their assailants.)

In chapter 6 of Leveling the Playing Field, I recounted an interview with two of the Gamergate principals, Zoe Quinn and Alex Lifschitz. You may recall the Gamergate incident: It began as a reasonable argument amongst gamers about ethics in game-related journalism, but quickly escalated into vicious attacks, name-calling, doxing, and death threats, all delivered (mostly anonymously) via the Web. Zoe and Alex were two of the favored (if that's the right word) targets, and the two of them essentially had to go on the run, afraid to stay at their own homes or to be seen in public with their friends and colleagues.
Zoe Quinn is one of the Gamergate
folks targeted by folks who attacked
her, released her personal information
(called "doxing":), and threatened to
"swat" her and her friends.
Perhaps worst of all, said Zoe, was the threat of swatting, in which an attacker calls the police and reports a fake emergency at the target's address. The caller might tell the police that he had heard gunshots at the target's address or that he knows someone is holed up there with firearms and/or explosives. You get the idea. The goal is to get the cops to deploy a SWAT team to that address; the attacker's presumed goal is to get someone at that address hurt or possibly even killed. This is why Zoe Quinn and others have called swatting "attempted murder by proxy."

It's incredibly dangerous. You have heavily armed, nervous, excited (and sometimes frightened) police officers breaking open a door and entering the premises of someone who has no idea what is happening, why these assault weapons are suddenly pointed at him, or why these people are breaking into his house. (I suppose that the smart thing for the victim to do would be to drop to the floor with his hands behind his head, but in those circumstances, who would have the presence of mind to do the smart thing? Then again, what if, when you drop, the cop thinks that you're diving for a weapon? And how is he or she supposed to know that you're not?!)

Swatting has been going on for several years now (the FBI estimates that some 400 cases occur each year), and it finally resulted—as we knew it eventually would—in someone's death. On December 28th, Andrew Finch was killed in Wichita, KS when he came to the front door in response to police officers who had been sent there by a swatting "prank." (Ironically, the address the attacker had wasn't even the correct address; Finch was not a party to the argument that caused the swatting call, and was therefore unaware that there was a problem, making the whole nightmare doubly tragic.)

Representative Katherine Clark
(D - Mass.) sponsored the Interstate
Swatting Hoax Act of 2015 and almost
immediately became  the victim of a
swatting attack herself. Image in the
public domain.
A few years ago, Democratic congressperson Katherine Clark introduced a bill that would impose serious penalties for such online attacks and hoax calls, especially ones that result in death. (Naturally, Clark herself became the target of swatting attacks and other online threats.) The bill is still in committee, and people who know about such things say that it has little chance of passing.

Some argue that we don't need laws specifically aimed at swatting, in any case. The L.A. Times Editorial Board, for example, argues that existing laws cover such situations: there are, for instance, already laws against making threats and against filing false police reports. However, most of these laws are local in nature, and each state determines how to file charges. In most cases, callers are charged with misdemeanors, but even if a felony charge is brought, the punishment may vary wildly.

Zoe Quinn is right: a swatting call is attempted murder by proxy. If apprehended, the "prankster" should be charged with attempted murder or another serious felony. If someone dies as a result of a swatting call, the caller should be charged with, at minimum, manslaughter.

And if it takes a federal law to ensure that this happens, then so be it.

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