The director of the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity infrastructure protection agency confirms she was the victim of a dangerous “swatting” attempt late last month. As first reported on January 22 by cybersecurity news outlet, The Record, local police in Arlington County, VA, arrived at Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Jen Easterly’s residence around 9pm on December 30 after receiving a 911 call that falsely claimed a shooting had occurred in or near her home.
What is ‘swatting’?
“Swatting” refers to when malicious actors intentionally report nonexistent, often violent crimes at a target’s residence, with the intention of causing an aggressive, potentially harmful police response. The term originates in reference to the SWAT teams most often dispatched to handle the kinds of crimes reported by hoaxers. Although its origins reside in events such as simply calling in false bomb threats, swatting itself has grown in popularity over the years, initially through the online video gaming community. The FBI first referenced the “new phenomenon” as far back as 2008, but tactics have evolved since then to include more sophisticated methods such as hacking Ring cameras and employing “spoofing” technology to appear as though a 911 call is actually coming from a targeted residence. The technical complexity involved in Easterly’s incident is currently unclear.
[Related: Two men used Ring cameras to ‘swat’ homeowners.]
Although law enforcement officers departed Easterly’s home last month after confirming the 911 call to be a hoax, this unfortunately is not always the case. In 2017, Wichita police accidentally killed a 28-year-old after responding to false reports of a shooting and hostage situation. In that instance, the tragedy stemmed from a dispute from two online gamers with no connection to the victim after one of the players provided the other their old address.
Swatting is increasingly used to harass public and elected officials, regardless of political affiliation. The tactic’s rising popularity is considered so grave that the FBI established a national database to help track and prevent future swatting events in June 2023.
“One of the most troubling trends we have seen in recent years has been the harassment of public officials across the political spectrum, including extreme incidents involving swatting and direct personal threats,” Easterly said in a statement offered to The Record on Monday. “These incidents pose a serious risk to the individuals, their families, and in the case of swatting, to the law enforcement officers responding to the situation.”
Although Easterly described the experience as “harrowing,” she explained that swatting is now “unfortunately not unique.” CISA’s director cited bad actors recently targeting “several of our nation’s election officials” due to continued, patently false conspiracy theories and outright lies pertaining to both the 2020 election, as well as the upcoming 2024 election asserting rigged outcomes for President Biden.
In just the past few weeks, swatting attacks occurred on judges overseeing legal cases against former President Donald Trump, election officials in both Georgia and Maine, as well as both Republican and Democrat politicians. During a press conference last week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the trend “a danger and a risk to our society” after the White House itself faced a swatting hoax pertaining to a nonexistent fire.
CISA first formed in 2007 as a division of the Department of Homeland Security. In 2018, its responsibilities expanded to encompass national election and census cybersecurity efforts.