Teenage wasteland

Following another London gang killing, Ruth Hedges - who worked with youngsters on the estate where

The news headline came through: fatal shooting of young boy in Stockwell. My heart sank and I quickly looked at the TV. Instantly the red bricked, quad-shaped flats of Stockwell Gardens Estate were recognisable. The white tape fluttered, and my heart sank lower.

Once a week for six months between November 2006 and April 2007 I ran a journalism project in this estate through the organisation, Headliners. I worked with a group of teenagers aged 13-18, exploring issues important to them and trying to get their voices heard. Now the TV crews were there alright, but for the worst possible reason.

Over the six months that we met in the Old Laundry, it amazed me that after a day at school or college, people would turn up. It was tough finding things to keep the group engaged safely in the winter evenings, but they were often inspiring and made it work.

They took what was thrown at them, had fun, argued their points and produced some good things. But there was nothing else to do. It was cold and dark and they wanted to be out of their flats and to see their friends. They also needed for someone to take their points of view seriously.

Young men would regularly come in agitated from having been stopped and searched; one guy missing a college exam because of it. Three of the girls experienced murder in their school and family, having to attend funerals. Two sisters came in late once saying they’d had to go to their dad’s and godfather’s birthday. It took me a few seconds to realise this was the same person.

One 17-year-old, whose questioning of the media’s use of the word ‘gang’, would triumph any Question Time debate, revealed in a rap that his dad had died of cancer. His mum had recently re-married and he didn’t get on with his new step dad. None of the group had a mum or dad who were still together, and the vast majority lived with their mums. For an early-morning shoot, one of the girls was tired because she’d been hungry at midnight and so had gone off on her bike to get some chicken.

While there was never an overt threat of violence, there were occasional instances where I witnessed money changing hands, and older men would walk unannounced into the group to have a word with the younger ones. There were undoubtedly pressures to get involved in a sub-culture of drugs, but what real enticing alternatives were there?

It might seem that for these teenagers and many others like them, that they would be beyond wanting sports, games or activities to do, but that’s wrong. The thing that they wanted more than anything was a youth club. There is one down in Brixton – we did some interviews there – but they wanted one for their estate.

They had the space – the Old Laundry – and there were even facilities (a locked backroom of pool tables, deflated footballs, a stereo), but there was not the money for the necessary staff to run a regular youth club. It was possibly the most frustrating set-up I’ve ever witnessed.

I will never forget the first time I went to meet the group. Hyde Housing, the estate’s management, held a regular youth forum where ‘decisions’ about the estate could be made. After mumblings of disquiet, when asked what they’d been promised, one of the younger boys looked dejected and said "ping pong".

After a few more offerings from the floor, the chief housing officer from Hyde got up to give an illustrated talk. He showed a series of stills from CCTV footage of young people around the estate ‘hanging out’. The point of this seemed to be to say, we’re watching you – and even if you’re just hanging out with the wrong people, by association, you’ll be under suspicion. The ridiculousness of this was extreme, and I was as bemused and annoyed as the assembled group were.

Next up was me, a young white woman, to pitch a journalism course. Every person in the room was black, and one of the young boys asked me what I would think if I saw a group of them standing on a street corner? What I wanted to say was that I saw a group of tired-looking young people, some with puffy eyes and scuffed-up clothes who were justifiably pretty disenchanted with what had been presented with so far.

I just said I would see a group of young people standing on a corner. They let me off with a few disbelieving laughs and jeers. Their perception of how they were seen by the media and wider society was acute.

So we started. The group had an energy and verve, and an anger that was impressive. They laughed a lot, discussed issues, and grilled a local councillor with smart, well-researched persistence. Their needs were in many ways complex, yet in some ways very simple – a secure outlet, a focus and a challenge. When there was yet another false hope with the youth club, and they were told it was going to happen, the lad who had mentioned ping pong asked: "Will there be a tuck shop?" When the reply came in the affirmative he threw both arms up in the air and cheered.

By the time I left, there was still no youth club. Wouldn’t it have been so much of a better headline, even just in the local press, to say: "Stockwell Gardens Estate Opens Youth Club" or "Lambeth Council Opens Sports Centre", rather than: "Boy Gunned Down as he Cowers Behind Tree"?

What a waste. What heartbreak. Why should the young of this estate have to deal with that loss and that trauma, and keep trying to better things for themselves – to get the odd bench put in where they can sit down?

There is only so long you can neglect people, to not listen and not provide any alternatives, and expect them to bounce back or just keep their heads down. As one of the young men said, “They need to make a place for us to chill. That’s the most important thing, because if they don’t, that’s when people resort to doing crime. It’s a proven fact that idle hands are the worst hands. I feel like an animal here. Everything’s closed off, it’s like they’re caging us. People might think that’s not affecting them, but subliminally, when the mind keeps on seeing gates and railings, the mind is going to act like its got to put its hands up and have protection."

It is tragic that his prophetic warning has come true. When I heard about the shooting, I texted one of the girls whose block it was directly in front of to see if she was OK. She texted back: "Thank you ruth im alrite now he was my friend".

They were just looking forward to the summer when I left in April. I’m truly gutted for them that it has started this way, not to mention for the boy’s family.

There has to be serious, intensive investment in youth services, subsidised sports and cultural facilities if we’re going to turn things around. It’s wanted and needed, and in a country and capital where the divide between the haves and have-nots is so pronounced, where one set of kids demand focaccia and olives and the other are worried about being taken to Nando’s because to them it’s expensive, there’s got to be some attempt to offer a rebalance.

If there's not, a portion of our young people will continue to grow up on the defensive nursing bridling frustration, and the message goes home loud and clear: no-one cares about you, so how are you going to feel like a someone?

-- Ruth Hedges is a freelance journalist based in London, www.ruthhedges.co.uk

NEAL FOX FOR NEW STATESMAN
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They know where you live

Imagine your house being raided by armed police. That’s what happened to Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts after she fell victim to an internet hoaxer.

At around midnight on Tuesday 11 August 2015, a man dialled 999 to report a murder. A woman had been killed in her London home, he said, before hanging up without offering his name. A second call followed. This time, the man claimed to be the killer. He told the operator that he had now taken the woman’s children hostage at the Islington address. They were locked with him inside a room in the house, he said. The police responded with reassuring speed. Fifteen minutes later, eight officers, five of them armed with automatic weapons, accompanied by saliva-flecked dogs, arrived at the scene and took up position in neighbouring front gardens. When one officer banged on the front door of the house, the team was greeted, moments later, not by a masked murderer but by a blinking and bewildered au pair.

Justine Roberts, the woman whom the caller claimed to have killed, was in fact nearly 2,000 kilometres away – in Italy, holidaying with her husband and children. After explaining this to the police, the au pair called Roberts, who assumed that the incident was an unfortunate misunderstanding, one that could be unpicked after the vacation. It was no mistake. Roberts had been the victim of “swatting”, the term given to a false emergency call designed to bait an armed unit of police officers to storm someone’s home. It wasn’t until a few days later, as the family was preparing to return to London, that Roberts discovered that she had been the target of a planned and sustained attack, not only on her household, but also on her business.

Roberts is the founder of Mumsnet, the popular British internet discussion forum on which parents share advice and information. A few days before the swatting incident, members of 8chan, a chat room that prides itself on being an open, anonymous platform for free speech, no matter how distasteful, had registered accounts on Mums­net with the aim of trolling people there. When legitimate Mumsnet users identified and then ridiculed the trolls, some retreated to 8chan to plot more serious vengeance in a thread that the police later discovered. Roberts wasn’t involved in the online skirmish but, as the public face of the site, she was chosen as the first target.

After the initial armed response, Roberts’s perception was that the police were unconcerned about the swatting attack. “We were told that there was no victim, so there was not much that could be done,” she told me. The hoax caller, however, was not finished. In the days after the incident, there was chatter on Mumsnet and Twitter about what had happened. A Mumsnet user whom I will call Jo Scott – she requested anonymity for her own safety – exchanged heated messages with a hacker who claimed responsibility for the 999 call.

“It descended into jokes and silliness, like many things do,” Scott said. “I didn’t take it seriously when the hacker said he had big surprises in store.” She doesn’t believe that what happened next was personal. “I think I was just easy to find.”

A few days after police were called to Roberts’s home, Scott was in her bedroom while her husband was sitting downstairs playing video games. At 11pm, she heard a noise outside. “I looked out of the window and saw blue flashing lights in the street,” she recalled. “I could hear shouting but I didn’t pay it much notice.” Then she heard her husband open the front door. Police rushed into the house. An armed officer shouted upstairs, asking Scott if she was hurt. When she replied that she was fine, he told her to fetch her two young children: he needed to see them. Scott shook her sons awake, explaining, so as not to alarm them, that the police had come to show the boys their cars. As the three of them went downstairs, the officers swept up through the house, repeatedly asking if there were any weapons on the property.

“I was beyond confused by this point,” Scott said. “Everyone was carrying a gun. They had little cutaway bits so you could see the bullets. My eldest asked one of the officers if he could have a go on his gun and went to touch it.”

As Scott sat with an officer downstairs, she asked what had happened to her husband. “I later found out that the noises I’d heard were the police calling for him to come outside,” she said. “He dropped the PlayStation controller as he left the room. It was only later that we realised it’s a good job he did: in the dark, the controller might have looked like a weapon.”

Outside, Scott’s husband had been surrounded and arrested. Other police ­officers were on the lookout in the front gardens of nearby properties, having warned the couple’s neighbours to stay indoors, away from their windows. “One of the officers said it was beginning to look like a hoax,” Scott said. “Then he mentioned swatting. As soon as he said that word, I twigged that I’d seen the term that day on Twitter in relation to the Mumsnet hack.”

***

The term “swatting” has been used by the FBI since 2008. “Swat” is an acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”, the American police squads routinely called to intervene in hostage situations. It is, in a sense, a weaponised version of a phoney order of pizza, delivered as a prank to a friend’s home, albeit one that carries the possibility of grave injury at the hands of police. For perpetrators, the appeal is the ease with which the hoax can be set in motion and the severity of the results. With a single, possibly untraceable phone call, dialled from anywhere in the world, it is possible to send an armed unit to any address, be it the home of a high-profile actor whom you want to prank or that of someone you want to scare.

In America, where swatting originated, the practice has become so widespread – targets have included Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood and the Californian congressman Ted Lieu – that it is now classed as an act of domestic terrorism. In the UK, where Justine Roberts’s was one of the first recorded cases, swatting is classed as harassment, though that may change if these and other forms of internet vigilante attacks, such as doxxing, become increasingly commonplace.

Doxxing involves the publication of someone’s personal details – usually their home address, phone numbers, bank details and, in some cases, email address – on the internet. It is often the prelude to swatting: after all, the perpetrator of a hoax cannot direct the police to the target’s home address until this is known. (During the week of the Mumsnet attacks, one of the perpetrators attempted to locate another target using their computer’s IP address, which can identify where a person is connected to the internet, often with alarming precision. Their calculation, however, was slightly out; police were called to a neighbour’s address.)

Though doxxing has a less dramatic outcome than swatting, the psychological effects can be just as severe. For victims – usually people who are active on the internet and who have outspoken opinions or who, in the eyes of an internet mob, have committed some kind of transgression – the mere threat of having their personal information made available on the web can cause lasting trauma. A Canadian software developer whose home address, bank details, social security number and email history were published online in 2014 told me that he now keeps an axe by his front door. “I still don’t feel safe here,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

Christos Reid, a social media manager for a software company, was doxxed last year. Reid’s information came from a website he had registered seven years earlier. “I woke up one morning to find a tweet announcing my personal details,” he told me. When he asked the Twitter account holder to take down the address, he was told to commit suicide. Reid said he was “OK for about half an hour”; but then, after he went out, he broke down in the street. “I’ve become more paranoid,” he said. He no longer gives out business cards with personal information.

Reid lives in London, but at the time of the doxx he was attending an event in Nottingham, home to the British police’s largest cybercrime division. He was impressed with the police response, even though they told him that they had not heard of the term “doxxing” before. “I was interviewed by two separate people about my experiences who then compiled everything into a case file and transferred it to the Met. When I arrived home, an officer visited me to discuss what happened and my options.”

The policeman explained harassment law to Reid, and offered advice on how to improve security at his flat and what to do if someone hostile turned up at the address. Reid shouldered the repercussions of what had happened alone; no suspects were identified. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police similarly said that although detectives from Islington CID have investigated the swatting attacks made on Roberts and Scott, no suspects have been identified “at this time”, even as “inquiries continue”.

Doxxing may seem to be a mild form of harassment but it carries with it an implicit threat of impending violence; the worrying message is: “We know where you live.” Unlike swatting, which is always malicious, doxxing is sometimes viewed by its perpetrators as virtuous. In November 2014, hackers claiming to be aligned with the internet group Anonymous published personal information allegedly belonging to a Ku Klux Klan member from Missouri. The hackers said that their action was a response to the KKK’s threat to use lethal force against demonstrators in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting against the killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. In January 2015 hackers claiming to be from Isis took over US Central Command’s Twitter account and posted information about senior military officers, including phone numbers and email addresses. In each case, those carrying out the doxxing believed, however mistakenly, in the virtue of their actions and hoped that the information could be used to bring punishment or ruin to the subject.

The term “doxxing” may be new but the practice is an old one. The Hollywood blacklist revealed the political beliefs and associations of actors and directors in the late 1940s as a way to invite shame, deny employment and dissuade others from following their example. “But it has become a lot easier to find people’s private details with the help of the internet,” Jeroen Vader told me. Vader owns Pastebin, a website that allows users to upload and distribute text documents, and where much of the personal data is anonymously uploaded and shared. “People post their private information on social networks,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that their information is so easily available to others.”

In Justine Roberts’s case, the perpetrator may not even have needed to look at social networks to mine her personal information. “If you’re on the electoral roll, you’re easy to find,” she said. “There’s not much you can do to stop people getting hold of your data one way or another, whether it’s for nefarious reasons or simply to better advertise to you. We live in a world that is constantly trying to gather more information about us.”

Jeroen Vader said he has noticed an “upward trend” in the number of doxxing posts uploaded to Pastebin in recent months, but insisted that when someone uses the site’s abuse report system these offending posts are removed immediately.

Across social media companies, action is more often reactive than proactive. Victoria Taylor, a former director at Reddit, one of the largest community-driven websites in the world, said that the rule against publishing other users’ personal information has been “consistently one of the site’s most basic policies” and that “any violation of this rule is taken extremely seriously by the team and community”. Still, she was only able to recommend that victims of doxxing send a message to the site’s administrators. Similarly, when asked what a person can do to remove personal details that have been published without permission, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Use our help form.”

The spokesperson added: “There has def­initely been an overall increase in doxxing since 2006, both on Twitter and on the internet more generally.” She attributed this rise to the emergence of search engines such as Intelius and Spokeo, services designed to locate personal information.

***

The surge in the number of dox­xing and swatting attacks is in part a result of the current lack of legal protection for victims. Confusion regarding the law on doxxing is pervasive; the term is even not mentioned in either US or European law. In a tutorial posted on Facebook in 2013, the writer claims: “Doxxing isn’t illegal as all the information you have obtained is public,” and adds: “But posting of the doxx might get you in a little trouble.”

Phil Lee, a partner in the privacy, security and information department of Fieldfisher based at the law firm’s office in Silicon Valley, said that differing privacy laws around the world were part of the problem. “Various countries have laws that cover illegal or unauthorised obtaining of data. Likewise, some of the consequences of releasing that data, such as defamation or stalking, cover elements of what we now term doxxing. But there is no global law covering what is a global phenomenon.” Indeed, Roberts believes that her London address was targeted from America – the 999 call was routed through a US proxy number.

One challenge to creating a law on doxxing is that the sharing of personal information without permission has already become so widespread in the digital age. “If a law was to state something like, ‘You must not post personal information about another person online without their consent,’ it wouldn’t reflect how people use the internet,” Lee said. “People post information about what their friends and family members have been doing all the time without their consent.

“Such a law could have a potentially detrimental effect on freedom of speech.”

Lee believes that a specific law is unnecessary, because its potentially harmful effects are already covered by three discrete pieces of legislation dealing with instances where a person’s private information is obtained illegally, when that information is used to carry out illegal acts and when the publication of the information is accompanied by a threat to incite hatred. However, this does not adequately account for cases in which the information is obtained legally, and then used to harass the individual in a more legally ambiguous manner, either with prank phone calls or with uninvited orders of pizza.

Susan Basko, an independent lawyer who practises in California and who has been doxxed in the course of her frequent clashes with internet trolls, believes that the onus should be on the law, rather than the public. She points out that in the US it is a crime to publicise information about a government employee such as their home address, their home and cellphone numbers, or their social security number, even if the information is already online. “This law should apply to protect all people, not just federal employees,” she said. “And websites, website-hosting companies and other ISPs should be required to uphold this law.”

Basko said that doxxing will continue to increase while police have inadequate resources to follow up cases. For now, it is up to individuals to take preventative measures. Zoë Quinn, an American game designer and public speaker who was doxxed in 2014, has launched Crash Override, a support network and assistance group for targets of online harassment, “composed entirely of experienced survivors”.

Quinn, who spoke about the problem at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC in April last year, recently posted a guide on how to reduce the likelihood of being doxxed. “If you are worried you might some day be targeted,” she wrote, “consider taking an evening to stalk yourself online, deleting and opting out of anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Both Scott and Roberts have changed their privacy habits following the attacks. Scott is more careful about interacting with strangers online, while Roberts uses scrambler software, which ensures that she never uses the same password for more than one online site or service.

For both women’s families, the effects of their encounters with armed police have also lingered. When one day recently Roberts’s husband returned home early from work, the au pair called the police, believing it was an intruder. And Scott is haunted by what happened.

“What if my husband had made a sudden move or resisted in some way? What if my eldest had grabbed the gun instead of gently reaching for it? What if people locally believed that my husband did actually have guns in the house?” she asks. “I don’t think the people making these sorts of hoax calls realise the impact.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism