How are we supposed to think about the swatting incident that left an innocent man dead in the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas? How do we reckon with the reality that the meat of this story - police believe a kid pawning off a trifling Call of Duty bet to an internet troll who prides himself on his ability to fabricate vivid threats to 911 operators - isn't particularly unique or novel? If you're reading Glixel, you probably take pride in the global arcadia of gaming, and I imagine that you love and root for this industry in the same way that we do. So, how have we allowed the craven manipulation and weaponization of our police forces emerge as a part of our folklore? How is this not an outlier? Why does a fatality, of all things, feel like a wake-up call? Why can I go to YouTube right now and watch cheery Top 10 videos gleefully recounting all the famous streamers who've had their doors blasted off their hinges by a nervy SWAT team? The murder of Andrew Finch, 28, father of two, is horrible, but those of us in this community have known exactly what's to blame for a long, long time.
The person believed responsible for triggering the confrontation that led to Finch's death, a 25-year old man in Los Angeles named Tyler Barriss, is currently in custody faces, among others, a charge of involuntary manslaughter. In 2015, he was arrested in his native Los Angeles county for making a false bomb threat, landing him behind bars for two years. The LA Times, in their investigation, reported a long history of deviance on Barriss' part, including dozens of phony threats issued directly from his grandmother's computer. That adds up with what is believed to be his newly-scrubbed Twitter account, (@SWAuTistic,) which marketed himself as an eager middleman for any petty gamer looking to get their revenge through the special forces. Seemingly, Barriss dedicated himself fully to the type of social engineering that convinces officials that he represents a clear and present danger, and it's likely that his dangerous little hobby wouldn't have stopped until a tragedy like this forced his hand.
The facts, as we understand them, say that Barriss' target was misidentified. Andrew Finch was not involved in an unpaid Call of Duty debt, nor did he even play games. When the man who police believe was Barriss called up the Wichita dispatcher, (claiming he had murdered his father and was holding the rest of his family hostage,) he gave them a wrong address. When the SWAT team opened fire on Finch, the caller was still on the phone with the operator, and they remained on the line together for at least 20 minutes after the shooting. In what is believed to be Barriss' final tweet before his apprehension, he showed absolutely no guilt: “I DIDN'T GET ANYONE KILLED BECAUSE I DIDN'T DISCHARGE A WEAPON AND BEING A SWAT MEMBER ISN'T MY PROFESSION.”
"A lot of this swatting stuff happened when it became feasible for people to get paid playing video games."
Brian Krebs is a longtime cybersecurity journalist, and one of the very few people who managed to communicate with Barriss, (or at least someone claiming to be him,) before his arrest. Their discourse is predictable; young, nihilist, drunk on the attention, with only a few parched shreds of regret. “Bomb threats are more fun and cooler than swats in my opinion and I should have just stuck to that,” he wrote over Twitter DM. “But I began making [money] doing some swat requests.” As one of the foremost experts in digital misconduct, Krebs' diagnosis on Barriss' disposition, and the swatting phenomenon as a whole, is not charitable.
"I don't want to sound like I'm saying gaming is the root of all evil, we see a lot of that," he says in an interview with Glixel. "But at the end of the day, I focus on cybercrime activities. I've made a living off of profiling cybercriminals. And one of the hard things to ignore is that pretty much all of the cybercriminals I track are big time into gaming. … A lot of this swatting stuff happened when it became feasible for people to get paid playing video games. That's the connection I see."
The spectacle of swatting is easy to understand in very broad strokes. There's something cruelly surreal in watching the eyes of a famous streamer flicker towards red-and-blue lights blinking outside their window; dropping their controller on the floor, putting their hands above their head. It's hacker pranksterism at its most ghoulish, and therefore, its most elemental - something that couldn't be possible without the gaping breaches of privacy that come prepackaged with modern life. Joshua "Koopatroopa787" Peters said he had no knowledge of any online beef or debt when the special forces breached his house, guns drawn, interrupting his Runescape stream. "I didn't take [swatting] too seriously," he says in an interview with Glixel. "But I knew it was an issue with the industry that I'm involved with."
"What I remember the most was being face down on the floor with my family and my brother coming out of his room to see what was going on; it was at that moment I started yelling trying to explain to the police what was most likely going on and that someone prank called them," remembers Peters. "It could have very easily been one of my family members that night that could have been shot if it wasn't for the professionalism of the Saint Cloud Police Department and the other police officers that were involved. It brought me to tears finding out what happened in Kansas."
Last year, when Counter-Strike streamer Jeff Zito was swatted, the officers joined him on camera after they established that the call was a hoax. "Ain't no murders up in here, except for these plebs!" one of the officers said, referring to the chat scrolling through the screen. The clip immediately went viral and represented a false hope that if bogus threats continue to trickle through our security channels, hopefully, police forces could get better at identifying them. The Wichita tragedy, among many other things, has revealed that those expectations were naive.
"There are a great many more tools available for people to cause problems for other people," says Krebs. "Whether it's doxxing them, posting their personal information online, it's never been easier. And that's why you're seeing so much of it."
It is difficult to heap all of the blame on the Wichita police force when a malicious presence is doing their damndest to mislead them, but still, it'd be wrong to not point out at least one oversight. The suspect didn't call 911. As a Californian, that number would've connected him to his local municipality. Instead, he dialed into Wichita's City Hall directly, something Krebs says is a telltale indicator of a hoax. "It suggests that the police haven't been trained on what signs to look for," he explains. "They have a hard job. … The fact that many of them aren't trained on this is not a shocker, [but] I was a little surprised."
Wichita Deputy Police Chief Troy Livingston seems to lay the blame for the shooting fully at the feet of the person who called police to the home. He told a press gathering that "The irresponsible acts of a prankster put people’s lives at risk. The incident is a nightmare for everyone involved, including the family and our police department. Due to the action of a prankster, we have an innocent victim. If the false police call had not been made, we would not have been there."
That only highlights how sensitive these situations are. Tim Williams was a senior detective supervisor at the Los Angeles Police Department for nearly 30 years, and today uses his expertise as an expert witness. "Anytime you have a specialized unit like SWAT or a bomb squad [involved,] they take the situation very, very seriously," he says. "They will conduct their investigation to see if it's real or fake, but they'll proceed as if it is real."
Most agree that the real trial facing police departments around the country is the ability to snuff out swatting attempts at their source and identify a phony phone call before a SWAT unit is dispatched. Much has been made about the accessibility would-be swatters have to the national switchboard: how they can mask their identity with ease and how difficult it is then to extradite and prosecute them. Williams doesn't see that as an excuse and says that law enforcement needs to maintain full internet literacy if they ever hope to keep up with our rapidly mutating online conventions. But luckily, help might be on the way.
Congresswoman Katherine Clark of Massachusetts is the cosponsor of the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act - a bipartisan effort to make the nuts and bolts of accosting swatters easier and more palpable to courthouses. Clark, predictably, was motivated by the havoc of GamerGate, and the coordinated harassment campaigns directed at several prominent women in her constituency. "[There wasn't] an understanding that severe online abuse can jump from the internet into real life," she says, in an interview with Glixel. "Swatting is one of those examples."
"We wanted to develop a crime that really sets out what this hoax is, and by having it be a federal statute, [it resolves] the jurisdiction issues [for swattings that happen across state lines,]" explains Clark. "And also local law enforcement may not have anywhere near the resources to look into cybercrime. These are people who are often very sophisticated at hiding their tracks when they make these calls. So it allows them to access the resources of the FBI, and hopefully that will help solve some of these crimes."
Clark echoes a faint optimism that the death of Andrew Finch - perhaps the first time the gaming community has had unmistakable blood on its hands - might foreshadow some serious reform. It's the first fatal swatting story, and it should offer fresh motivation for anyone already concerned about the status of our online dialogue. "I deeply regret that it took a brutal shooting of someone on their own front porch who'd done nothing to elicit a police response to bring some light on this," she says. "But I am hopeful that these crimes that are perpetrated online are not treated as virtual things that don't have real impact."