A Langley, B.C., family, who had SWAT members show up on their doorstep due to a false 911 call, appear to have become pioneer Canadian victims of an Internet phenomenon known as swatting.
Policing officials contacted across Canada on Wednesday were stumped when asked about the chilling form of hacking, but it has been routine in the United States where there have been several successful prosecutions in recent years.
Swatting refers to falsely reporting an emergency to police to cause a Special Weapons and Tactics response to a particular address, or making a false report to elicit an emergency response, said one statement by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The practice puts the unwitting targets at risk: In one California case cited by the FBI, a man was almost shot when he grabbed a kitchen knife as he crept up on presumed burglars in his home and found a SWAT team. The practice also diverts responders from legitimate emergencies and racks up unnecessary costs.
"It's very scary. This is just beyond what people would expect in their ordinary use of the Internet," said Richard Rosenberg, a professor emeritus in computer science at the University of British Columbia.
Prof. Rosenberg, also president of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said he wasn't surprised by the Langley incident because it was inevitable for hackers to go beyond corporations and governments to focus on ordinary people for arbitrary reasons.
"It's such a terrible thing to be doing because people don't know how to respond," he said. "The police are limited in their resources. They are finally catching up with some of the activities on the Internet, and here's a whole other area for concern."
In Langley on Monday, the RCMP received a call from a man who said he had killed several people at a home, and was holding more hostage, the Mounties said.
Police blocked traffic around the area, rallied the Lower Mainland District Emergency Response Team, police dogs and ground and air ambulances, only to surprise an adult woman at the home, who was arrested before police found there was nothing going on.
Louise Gray told the CBC her family has been harassed by a hacker for a year and a half since her son posted a video on YouTube, and alleges the hacker called police through the family computer.
Langley RCMP have determined the call from a cellphone number in California was routed through the family's computer in Langley, said RCMP Constable Jillian Roberts, speaking for the detachment. Asked if police could track down the caller, Constable Roberts said, "That's not in my hands."
She said the family complained about hacking of e-mail, Facebook and YouTube accounts in January, leading police to examine their computer.
"It was investigated. I am not sure what the outcome of it was, but the file had been concluded," said Constable Roberts, adding the family was apparently tutored on improving home computer security, and encouraged to call in case of any further trouble.
Peter Fassbender, mayor of the neighboring city of Langley – the Grays are in Langley township – said the whole situation could have had a tragic conclusion.
"If somebody would have walked out with a broom in their hand, or if they didn't respond appropriately to the police, it could have been a very, very tough situation for sure," he said, but noted that police responded appropriately. "The issue is because it was a hoax, how do you track down and find the people who are responsible for that."
Jody Robertson, a spokeswoman for E-Comm, which answers 911 calls for southwestern British Columbia, said she and her associates had never previously heard of a swatting case in Canada.
"At present, there is no way for 911 centres to distinguish between these kinds of calls and a real 911 call," she said in a statement. .
Prof. Rosenberg encouraged computer users to be careful about opening strange attachments or disclosing their passwords. He said while police have made advances in such areas as dealing with child pornography, on swatting they "do not have the resources or expertise to deal with this stuff."
Tim Richardson, an expert in online security at the University of Toronto, said one solution to counter swatting might be a greater reliance by 911 services on existing public surveillance cameras to verify emergencies.
"You'd be surprised how many cameras there are at the disposal of 911 operators," he said.