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Using a SWAT team as a weapon against investigative journalism

Brian Krebs, a information and network security journalist, a few days ago had a little visit from a SWAT team:

When I opened the door to peel the rest of the tape off, I heard someone yell, “Don’t move! Put your hands in the air.” Glancing up from my squat, I saw a Fairfax County Police officer leaning over the trunk of a squad car, both arms extended and pointing a handgun at me. As I very slowly turned my head to the left, I observed about a half-dozen other squad cars, lights flashing, and more officers pointing firearms in my direction, including a shotgun and a semi-automatic rifle. I was instructed to face the house, back down my front steps and walk backwards into the adjoining parking area, after which point I was handcuffed and walked up to the top of the street.

I informed the responding officers that this was a hoax, and that I’d even warned them in advance of this possibility. In August 2012, I filed a report with Fairfax County Police after receiving non-specific threats. The threats came directly after I wrote about a service called absoboot.com, which is a service that can be hired to knock Web sites offline.

His blog carries the story context. Krebs further notes:

I have seen many young hackers discussing SWATing attacks as equivalent to calling in a bomb threat to get out of taking exams in high school or college. Unfortunately, calling in a bomb threat is nowhere near as dangerous as sending a SWAT team or some equivalent force to raid someone’s residence. This type of individual prank puts peoples’ lives at risk, wastes huge amounts of taxpayer dollars, and draws otherwise scarce resources away from real emergencies. What’s more, there are a lot of folks who will confront armed force with armed force, all with the intention of self-defense.

Statutory murder is an occasional topic of discussion in the information security community, for instance by planting a small quantity of drugs on someone who is travelling to Singapore.

It’s a risk, and it’s only getting easier to exploit with calls for ever more heavy-handed “security“.

14 comments to Using a SWAT team as a weapon against investigative journalism

  • What’s more, there are a lot of folks who will confront armed force with armed force, all with the intention of self-defense.

    And even if it gets them killed, the person defending themselves would be entirely justified in doing so. Sure, the smart thing is to roll over in the hope sense will eventually prevail but… not everyone is wired that way and moreover sense does not always prevail.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    I think that when this happens, you are likely to find really pissed off householders and also really pissed off police, whose time has been wasted, who have put innocent people in danger, and who have been made a fool of. There is a good chance that those pissed off police will be quite keen on tracking down and catching the actual criminals ie the people who made the phone call. They may be hard to catch – it is possible to make an untraceable phone call with spoofed caller ID – but sometimes they may not – there are lots of ways to be careless and for the call to in fact be traceable after all. Anyone who does this and is caught is likely to have the book thrown at them in a truly ferocious manner, as police do not generally like being made fools of.

    Of course, if this is being done by criminal organisations from inside Russia, catching them might be a little harder.

  • Sigivald

    The “young hackers” who suggest such tactics may, unfortunately, find themselves – and us reaping the whirlwind they sow in the form of a destruction of internet privacy by the law.

    After all, when they use anonymous IP phones to call in their threats, that will end up building a wave of popular support for making anonymity effectively illegal on the Internet.

    (Same thing with Anonymous and their intimidation tactics [“do as we wish or we’ll knock you off the internet”] – every time they inconvenience or harm Joe Citizen, or worse, Joe Legislator, they undermine everyone by building support for clamping down on internet liberty “to stop people like that”.

    Damn the lot of them.

    Reactions against such behavior might well be a greater threat to liberty on the internet than the State’s inherent desire to control…)

  • Laird

    Without intending to minimize what has already been said here, my biggest problem here is simply the existence of so many SWAT teams. Every two-bit town has one, thanks to the beneficence of Homeland Security, and every one-bit town is lusting after its own. This is a serious mistake: there simply aren’t enough violent criminals to warrant all these high-tech paramilitary outfits, so of course they get used for what should be routine police matters. In the instant case, even if it had been completely true that the author’s site “was hosting illegal content, profiting from cybercriminal activity, and . . . should be shut down”, there’s no reason a SWAT team was necessary for raiding it. None of that suggests anything violent (probably entirely to the contrary, in fact) so a normal police raid (with a warrant, of course) should have been more than sufficient. As with so many other examples of what I consider to be highly improper use of SWAT teams (such as the US Department of Education using one to collect on a student loan). (Why does the DOE even have a SWAT team?)

    Legitimate needs for SWAT teams are rare, even in large cities. There should be at most one or two per state; that would be more than sufficient for legitimate needs, as well as keeping the costs down, permitting better training for the few individuals involved, and forcing a closer examination of the circumstances before deploying them. But we’re moving in entirely the opposite direction; small-town police forces now have armored personnel carriers. Something has gone seriously wrong here.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Agree entirely with Laird’s comment.

  • Megan MRVT

    The para-militarization of US law enforcement was on of the major reasons I left the USA, moved to Costa Rica and threw my US passport in the face of that jackass functionary at the US embassy in San Jose 4 years ago. There are plenty of fuckwits here too but not a single day has passed that I regret leaving and every time I see shit like this, I’m more certain it was the right decision. My dad was a former cop and he shook his head at how things were changing in that direction more than 10 years ago.

  • Bruce

    I find it interesting that the “militarisation” of police forces in many countries has proceeded in parallel with the effective “civilianisation” of military forces; i.e. the use of a country’s :heavy hitters to deliver Band-Aids and biscuits to sundry sundry Third-World cess-pits.

    Infantry soldiers, in particular, are supposed to be trained to visit maximum destruction and lethal violence on nominated organisations and facilities. Turning them into armed (sometimes) social workers will only serve (whom, is the question), to degrade the training of said personnel.

    Turning coppers into “pretend” soldiers WILL have dire repercussions in the long term, especially as some of them seem to believe that they are “ten feet tall and bulletproof” in a “civilian” environment.

    As for “SWATTING”; expect it to get MUCH worse before things improve.

  • Bob, Henchman at Large

    Also, cops have spare time, and friends with spare time. People get mugged all the time. Or worse. Investigating muggings takes resources away from SWAT raids. Only so much time in the day.

  • Laird

    Very good point, Bruce.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Re the effective “civilianisation” of military forces:

    There is nothing new about this. Military forces have been tasked with keeping order for centuries, and that task requires “social worker” skills. For instance, it was the business of the U.S. Army in the early 1800s to maintain peace not only with but among the Indian tribes of the Upper Mississippi Valley (the present states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota). The British army has a very long tradition of “political officers”.

  • Bruce

    Rich Rostrom:

    I understand the long tradition of military forces “keeping order”. However, there is something of a distinction between “aid to the civil power in times of emergency” and “martial law”.

    Look how far things have come between the “Sheriff of Nottingham”, the institution of Robert Peel’s “Bow Sreet Runners”, and the squads of “assault troops” today. Starting to look a bit circular.

    These days, the “robber barons” wear Zegna suits and sit in parliaments. They do not need further encouragement by the provision of their own “private” armies, especially as the long-suffering peasantry is expressly forbidden the same “privilege”.

  • Just because this is not new, does not mean this is a good thing. Not all traditions should be followed.

  • Laird

    Rich, I would add to Bruce’s point the observation that there is a significant difference between “keeping order” and functioning as social workers. In days past “keeping order” meant harsh, violent repression. That’s a far cry from “winning hearts and minds”, let alone building schools. The US army spent a century violently subjugating the native tribes, ultimately herding them into reservations. From what I know of it the British army did much the same in India (sans the reservations, of course).

    Soldiers are trained to be killers, not social workers. Trying to mix the two functions just means that they won’t be particularly good at either.

  • Ernie G

    I have seen reports that the Department of Homeland Security has purchased enough armored vehicles and fully automatic weapons to equip an Army mechanized infantry regiment. There is a federal law, the Posse Comitatus Act, dating back to Reconstruction, that forbids the use of the United States Army or other military forces against civilians to enforce State law. It seems to me that claiming these DHS forces are not part of the Department of Defense and are thus not subject to the Posse Comitatus Act is a distinction without a difference.