Last month, the FBI created a national online database to finally begin coordinating law enforcement reports on “swatting” attacks across the country, NBC News reported yesterday.
Slapping is a form of domestic terrorism that is sometimes deadly and widespread in the US, according to a March report by Hal Berghel, a computer science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Berghel’s report defined whacking as:
A malicious act in which fraudulent 911 calls are made to force emergency response teams, such as police special weapons and tactics teams, or SWAT teams (which is where the gerund comes from), to respond forcefully to a nonexistent public threat.
Scott Schubert, of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services, told NBC News that the database will help combat the growing swat problem by facilitating “information sharing among hundreds of police departments and law enforcement agencies across the country regarding swat incidents.”
On college campuses, whacking is on the rise. Nine U.S. campuses were targeted by swatting attacks in one week in April, NBC News reported.
Whacking has become so common, Berghel wrote, that several subclasses have already been defined, including celebrity whacking, gamer whacking, partisan whacking (aimed at politicians), and hate whacking. The FBI’s database will help unify law enforcement efforts to combat the problem across the country, Schubert told NBC News, by compiling a “common operational picture of what’s going on across the country.” “.
Berghel wrote that “by everyone’s estimation” slapping is on the rise, but so far law enforcement has not officially tracked slapping incidents because law enforcement does not track slapping as a separate category of crime and there is no federal slapping law. Instead, statistics are absorbed as cases are prosecuted “among other statutes related to fraud, civil rights, hate crimes, the national defense, and so forth,” Berghel wrote.
While there are no official swatting statistics now, a former FBI swatting expert told The Economist in 2019 that he estimated that “the annual number of swatting incidents has increased from about 400 in 2011 to more than 1,000” in 2019. More Most recently, a 2023 study by a civil rights non-governmental organization, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), found that while spanking may not be as common as other forms of online harassment, such as being the target of hate speech or doxxing, teens (11 percent) report being spanked more often than adults (2 percent).
Ars could not immediately reach the FBI to confirm whether the online database will be used to generate official statistics in the future.
“We are doing everything we can to monitor this national problem and help where we can,” Schubert told NBC News.
Will the FBI database help stop the whacking?
Experts aren’t sure if the FBI’s online database will actually help reverse the disturbing whacking trend.
ADL’s director of policy and impact, Lauren Krapf, told Ars that “it’s good” to see the FBI taking whacking “seriously” because ADL’s most recent report found that “people are experiencing severe online harassment and digital abuse at alarming – and increasing – rates.” However, ADL has “pushed for years for better protection of whacking targets” and advocates for legislation that could meaningfully reduce whacking.
Berghel told Ars that he was also not necessarily sure that the FBI’s database would help solve the whacking problem.
“My initial reaction to the proposed FBI database plan is that I would feel more confident if this matter were given to the FBI profilers rather than to data engineers, law enforcement investigators, and ultimately politicians,” Berghel said.
Berghel told Ars that it’s common for “big government solutions to computer crime” to be “reactive and retaliatory — rather than solving problems at the source.” This, Berghel said, often leads to ineffective or counterproductive laws created by politicians who respond to an issue like whacking before they fully understand it.
To deter people from swatting attacks, Berghel said mental health professionals need more than laws that threaten heavy fines or jail time.
“When it comes to 911 swatting, the most important questions of our time are, ‘Why are 911 swatters exhibiting this behavior?’ and ‘How can society deal with it?’”, says Berghel to Ars.
To help answer these questions, the “biggest benefit” of creating the FBI database could be access not only for legislators and law enforcement, but also for mental health professionals, Berghel suggested.