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'Swatting' shows why Internet providers should be more responsible

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 3 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Unified Police SWAT team members enter a home during training in a condemned house in Riverton Tuesday, July 8, 2014.

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Enlarge photo»

The raid could have gone so wrong.

When a Bluffdale man, who has asked to remain anonymous, figured out that someone had pulled a prank on his video-game-playing wife by summoning a SWAT team to their home, he decided to come outside with his hands up, hoping to explain everything.

Freeze that image in your mind, then put yourself in the shoes of the officers in full protective gear, guns drawn. The call was from someone claiming to have killed his mother and to be holding others hostage. Who was this man coming toward them? Was he armed? Was he booby-trapped?

Think back to Josh Powell, the former Utah resident whose wife mysteriously disappeared and who ended up killing his two children and then blowing up himself and them, along with the house in which they lived. Police have no choice but to take reports of murderous hostage-takers seriously. The consequences of a timid response could be catastrophic.

And yet one false move by the Bluffdale man, just one move that could be interpreted as threatening, could have ended his life.

Welcome to the new, high-stakes world of pranks. Gone are the days when you could call random numbers to ask whether someone had Prince Albert in a can or if their refrigerator was running. Caller ID put an end to that a long time ago. Secretly ordering a dozen pizzas delivered to an unsuspecting victim? Too bland and too, let’s face it, 20th century.

Why not try “swatting,” instead? As the name implies, the object is to lure a SWAT team to someone’s house by pretending to be the resident and admitting to a horrible crime. Mass murder will do nicely, especially if you threaten to kill others who remain alive and are being held hostage.

The caller has to be someone with the technical know-how to make it appear as if the call is coming from the home in question.

And the best part? Because these pranks tend to involve people who are streaming themselves live while playing a video game, the prankster can watch the hijinks unfold live and in color.

Pranks are certainly not a new part of the entertainment landscape for ethically challenged bored people. Neither are deadly consequences for pranks that go wrong. History is littered with people who thought it would be fun to pretend to be a burglar in the bushes or a ghost in the closet, only to discover the lengths to which an unsuspecting friend will go to protect his property.

But add in the tempting allure of going viral — the aim of so many in a world that celebrates the right twist of attention-grabbing humor — and modern pranksters have the perfect soil on which to strew their fertilizer.

The Bluffdale couple wasn’t alone. Last week, a joker told police in Colorado he was holding hostages at a local business. The place happened to be Littleton, home of Columbine High School, where one of recent history’s most notorious mass killings took place in 1999. Nearby schools were in lockdown until that one was sorted out — and you can watch it all on YouTube.

Swatting itself isn’t a new thing. It was used against celebrities as early as 2007. But it does appear to be a product of the ironically named information age, which also has provided us with stolen nude photos of celebrities and other juvenile grotesqueries.

As if to highlight that irony, a story has begun circulating online about a 15-year-old boy who was arrested for swatting and sentenced to 25 years. References to the story garnered outraged social media replies by sophisticated information agers unaware that the story itself is a hoax.

All of this presents a host of challenges, not only to police and unsuspecting homeowners, but to the Internet itself, which tends to pride itself on a libertarian attitude toward speech and behavior.

A recent New York Times story noted that videos of beheadings were available online and that some popular sites believe the best policy is to let users police themselves.

I’m guessing there is a family in Bluffdale with an opinion on how that is going.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, jayevensen.com.

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