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Telephone Swatting: A New Look at an Old Problem

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2010-11-19
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By Barry Furey

In early February of last year, national media provided extensive coverage of the so-called “swatting” of 9-1-1 calls. This was triggered, in part, by a Department of Justice press release concerning the guilty plea entered by an eighteen year old Boston man on a string of related charges. However, rather than focusing on any new event, the incident most referenced by the media occurred in California during 2007, and was unrelated to the case. While the result of the malicious west coast call was horrendous – a sleeping family was taken down at gunpoint by police – it obviously could have been much worse.

Historically, telephone pranks are nothing new. Past generations delighted in what now seem to be mild diversions of calling numbers at random and asking unsuspecting persons, “If their refrigerators were running”. If the response was “yes,” they were then advised to “run after them”. If it sounds pretty harmless, that’s because it was. Of course, this was also well before the invention of Caller ID, and the chances of getting caught were slim to none. More modern versions of such escapades are memorialized on compact disk collections, and by television shows such as Crank Yankers. While not all of these newer examples can be considered tasteful or even socially redeeming, they are for the most part done in fun; a fact that sets them apart from swatting.

“Swatting” is defined as a deliberate manipulation of telephone technology in order to send erroneous data to a PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) in an effort to generate an emergency response. It is so named because the incidents normally reported during these false calls involve alleged crimes such as hostage situations that typically require the dispatch of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams.

While the frequency of such calls goes largely undocumented, the damage caused by them is clearly visible. According to Roger Hixson, the Technical Issues Director of the National Emergency Number Association, “False calls to 9-1-1 waste the time and resources of the PSAP and the responders, and can delay handling of real emergencies in busy timeframes at the PSAP. Faked 9-1-1 calls and related information also generate uncertainty as to the validity of other calls which may be real emergencies.” Obviously, the consequences of such attacks are also felt well beyond the walls of the dispatch center. The emotional toll taken on the lives of the victims may even be harder to measure.

One man came to the front door carrying a knife to protect his family from the unknown assailants in his yard. Of course, these “assailants” turned out to be law enforcement officers – supported by canine and aviation units – that had been sent to the residence on the report of a shooting. Another was detained on three different occasions when swatters repeatedly targeted his address. It’s clear that any wrong move by any of these unfortunate people could have lead to the ultimate tragedy. As it is, law enforcement agencies suffered the stigma of breaking down the doors of innocents, while the targets of these pranks in some cases suffered the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Manipulation of the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) can actually be traced as far back as the late 1950s, although it may have reached its zenith during the next two decades. Practitioners came to be known as “phreakers” and relied on technology such as “blue boxes” largely to receive free telephone service. The advent of alternate long distance services in the 1980s opened up yet another challenge to this counter-culture. Many of the techniques used exploited a vulnerability in the tone based signaling and switching commonly used by telcos. Since 2006, (and in most cases since the late 1990s) central offices in the United States no longer rely on these routines, rendering many of the past techniques obsolete. However, the rise of wireless telephony has opened up new avenues to fraud such as cloning or ghosting phones to make an illegal handset copy, and features such as voice mail and call forwarding have served as interim diversions for the technically inquisitive. In fact, the development of telephone systems is reflected in the parallel developments related to those wishing to compromise them. Over time, the term phreaker has morphed into the designation of phracker; a combination of phreaker and hacker. This acknowledgement of the role of computers in modern telecommunications can also be seen in what is known as the H/P (hacking/phreaking) culture.

While much of the focus of these past incidents was directed against large corporations, the brunt of current events is typically felt by private citizens. Caller ID spoofing is one technique that can be used to disguise the identity of callers. Although this is often done for business reasons by telemarketers and the like, it can also be used as a tool for conducting a personal vendetta. Since there are few limitations on the bogus number that you choose, it is relatively simple to enter the ten digits of your intended victim and dial up Dominos for a few dozen pizzas to be delivered to their door. There are obviously more sinister applications to which this ability can be directed, including falsely reporting incidents, and a quick search of the Web shows no lack of available sources for spoofing services.

However, it is the vulnerability of Internet based devices that provides the biggest problem. In the days when telephones were all hard wired into place, the ANI and ALI data delivered was highly reliable. Standard operating procedures dictated that we ask the caller where the emergency was, just to make sure, but we received a significant degree of comfort in knowing that even if the caller hung up we still had a pretty good idea of where he or she was based upon the information on our screen. With VoIP (Voice over Internet Provider) all of this has changed.

In the digital world of wi-fi hotspots, Magic Jack, and web phones, the term “number portability” means a lot more than being able to transfer your service seamlessly from one carrier to another. It could just as easily refer to making a call from anywhere at any time by using the same transportable device. And therein lies the problem. Many IP services require that the subscriber enter in the information required to properly connect their calls to 9-1-1. For many folks, this isn’t an issue. They get their VoIP service as part of their cable package, and probably never make an IP enabled call outside of their residence. In fact, some cable companies use addressable modems to provide this dial-tone, and fill out the proper routing information themselves.

But, since this technology does provide the potential for entering critical 9-1-1 related data, it also provides the potential for entering this data incorrectly. When this is done accidently, it can result in difficulties should an emergency occur at the subscriber’s residence. When it is done intentionally, it sets the stage for swatting. How vulnerable are we? A Washington state teen, arrested after a call made to a 9-1-1 center in Florida, was suspected of making at least 200 more around the country. While it is not clear that all of these incidents involved reports of crimes to PSAPs, it appears that he did “swat” agencies in his home state, Pennsylvania and Arizona, as well, on a number of occasions. Why was he and others like him so successful? A number of reasons come to mind.

First of all, while we don’t blindly believe what we see, confirmation strengthens that belief. If a caller advises that they are, indeed, at the address being shown on ALI, we have no valid reason to suspect otherwise. Secondarily, we have no tools to show us that this call is coming from seven states away from a spoofed telephone number. What we see is what we get; and in this case we get a valid local name and number. Also, as discussed, swatting calls generally report horrific emergencies. Even if it doesn’t sound “quite right”, no call taker in their right mind is going to question the veracity of report – nor should they. The only thing worse than the ensuing media coverage that would follow the dismissal of an actual active shooter event as a hoax, would be the death and destruction caused by the real deal being ignored. And, based upon their success rate, some of these guys seem to be pretty good actors. One report actually claims that appropriate background noises were provided to further heighten the believability factor.

In spite of several documented incidents, it does not appear that swatting has become a mainstream event. While the results can be devastating, the number of these calls remains relatively low. Arrests that have been made as a result of swatting have been highly publicized, and offenders have been given more than a slap on the wrist. Since these offenders are typically suspected or charged with additional bogus calls, one indictment often closes many cases. Between 2002 and 2006, for example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested five people it asserts were responsible for about 100 incidents in sixty different cities. All of this is good, because unless technology changes or additional security protocols are enacted, we may find ourselves in a reactive rather than a proactive mode. Until then, we must continue to assume that all reports – no matter how bizarre – are valid, and act accordingly. Because not taking a real emergency seriously would be the cruelest joke of all.

About the Author
Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.

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