In just one of multiple incidents in the last year in which a high-profile tech executive saw their home descended upon by police and SWAT teams, Facebook's head of Instagram Adam Mosseri had both his homes in New York and San Francisco swatted in November.
The attacks on Mosseri and his family are highlighted in a New York Times piece today about the growing trend of these retaliatory attacks, spawned by anonymous trolls in dark-web forums. This presumably mostly male network of disgruntled social media users exchange the personal information and home addresses of these executives, and target them for swattings as a means to lash back over seeing their accounts shut down or suspended for hate speech and other online offenses.
In the case of Mosseri, the exact inciting incident for the attack is not clear. But one or more individuals called authorities in both New York City and San Francisco multiple times reporting that people were being held hostage inside Mosseri's homes, prompting hours-long standoffs at both locations, twice. Similar swatting attacks involving tech executives have happened around the Bay Area and Seattle in the last year or two, prompting Seattle to launch a registry for potential swatting victims — those who sign up will receive a phone call to their home by police if and when a call comes in reporting a hostage situation or something similar.
An unnamed Facebook executive was the target of such an attack in January 2019, prompting a major police response. As the Mercury News reported, the caller in that case claimed to be the executive and said that he had shot his wife, tied up his kids, and was armed with pipe bombs that he was ready to use on officers. Luckily the incident resolved itself quickly after the "bewildered" executive and his family came out of the house peacefully and police realized it had been a hoax. According to the Times, "Facebook had flagged the executive as a likely target for swatting, and had taken precautions to protect him and his family. The police still sent a SWAT team."
Also, as the Times reports,
Facebook, Google and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment on measures they have taken to protect their employees from swatting. In recent months, all three companies have held discussions with employees who they believe are at risk.
They have asked those employees to take added precautions, such as not publicly giving their whereabouts or listing information about their family... Facebook, Google and Twitter informally share information about potential swattings, giving warnings to one another if they spot a threat on their platforms, [according to an expert].
The online forums where executives' information is shared include instructions for how to use cheap online services to mask phone information and disguise a call to make it appear as if it is coming from the address in question. And those posting in the forums say things about the executives like "they think they are god," as the Times notes, and regularly express bitterness about being kicked off platforms themselves.
Mark Zuckerberg's homes have also been flagged with local authorities as likely swatting targets, though its unclear if any attempted swattings have come his way.
These pranks aren't harmless either — a 28-year-old man, Andrew Finch, was killed in a swatting incident in Wichita, Kansas in December 2017. He was shot by a Wichita officer who believed Finch was lowering his hands toward his waistband after having his hands raised outside his home. Finch was an online gamer, and the culprit in the swatting was believed to be a fellow gamer — swatting having been something that began as a form of revenge against gamers in the last decade.
As of yet, there is no federal law against swatting, and the attacks can be launched from anywhere without much fear of getting caught. "Anyone can be at risk of being swatted, but people who work in tech are at a particular risk," says Chief Carmen Best of the Seattle Police Department. "We have to get a foothold on this, before more people get hurt."
Photo: Alec Favale