“Swatting” is UK trolls’ newest intimidation and harassment tool, and police need to take it seriously

Armed police call-outs to harassment victims’ homes are classed as “hoax calls” by the Met. We need to see these attacks for what they are: stalking and harassment.

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Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts and her family were woken in the early hours of the morning last week by armed police at the door. Days later, more armed police arrived at the address of a Mumsnet user. In both cases, police had received calls claiming there was a gunman at the property. In both, said gunman did not exist. 

Roberts and the Mumsnet user were the first known UK victims of "swatting", a practice named after the US's  heavily armed police units. It seems to have originated in US gaming communities, and usually takes the form of a false report of a crime involving firearms (or even a threat that the caller will shoot someone) at the victim's address. Just before the second police callout, @DadSecurity, the Twitter user who targetted Roberts and the Mumsnet site, tweeted out a picture of a US Swat team with the message “prepare to be swatted by the best”. It's clear that the hacker was copying similar attacks in the US. 

Swatting tends to be used as a punishment or attack on its victim - whether that be revenge on an XBox live moderator, or an attack on a space for women's voices and discussion. I spoke to a Met police spokesperson, who told me that at present, swatting attacks like the one on Roberts and her family, would be classed as "hoax calls" in police records. If the perpetrator were caught, the spokesperson also told me, they would probably be charged with "malicious communication", depending on the context. 

In the only known UK arrest for swatting offences, the FBI and the cybercrime division of the UK's South East Regional Organised Crime Unitarrested a man in Southport for Denial of Service (DDoS) hacking attacks (the same used by @DadSecurity against Mumsnet) and swatting offences, all commited in the US. Here, the collection of offences was treated as something more serious than malicious communication or a hoax: the man was charged with threats to kill and misuse of computers with intend to commit further offences. 

Swatting sends two messages to victims: first, that the perpetrator is willing to break the law to harass the you, but also that they have enough personal information to target you at your home. In the case of the Mumsnet swattings,Roberts says that neither individual’s address could have been accessed by hacking the site – both families must feel particularly spooked by the fact that @DadSecurity found them in the first place. 

These attacks are really a form of stalking, which only became a statutory offence under UK law in 2012 following a campaign from anti-harassment groups and charities, and is defined as instilling a "fear of physical violence or psychological harm" in victims. If we're to tackle stalking, which may take forms as seemingly innocuous as sending post to an address of a victim, or "accidentally" meeting them in the street, then we need to acknowledge that an armed police call-out used to punish a high-profile woman isn't just a "hoax call". 

I spoke to Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett society, a UK gender equality charity, who told me that while the society has yet to do much work on the subject,

Anything which men are using to intimidate and harass woman, we need to do something about. It's not enough to say we don't know what it is, or how to deal with it. "  

Swatting, while new to this side of the Atlantic, needs to be treated as what it is: both a huge waste of police time and a vengeful tool used to harass and threaten victims. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.