The Art of Swatting and the Artificially Generated Stampede

bomb-300x168When I tell people about the prospect of an artificially generated stampede (the modern, technological equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater), I often get asked the following question verbatim:

“How would they get everyone’s cell phone number?”

I usually reply, “You gotta realize, they already have your number.”

Then I get that suspicious look.  “Oh, I see.  It’s some kind of conspiracy.  Everyone simultaneously gets a mysterious text message on their phone.”

Bomb threat alert.  Evacuate immediately.

“People observe others panicking and unexpectedly scrambling for the concourses and exits.  Then, they panic and join the herd.  And suddenly, you have a full blown stampede on your hands.  Well, I guess something like that could happen.  Anything is possible.”

“But I still don’t understand, how would “they” get everyone’s cell phone number?”

Rest assured, there are numerous ways.  I refer to them as “lights out” scenarios — wireless carrier hacks, reverse 911 sabotage, deliberate misuse of Amber Alerts / Wireless Emergency Alerts / campus text emergency alerts / weather advisory notifications, opt-in notification abuse, acquisition of a season ticket holder list in tandem with a bulk text messaging program, etc.  But when I begin to explain the prospect of mass trilateration and Stingray technology (a small briefcase-sized device that effectively functions as a cell tower)… well, that’s when I start to lose ’em.  It’s understandable.  Ordinary people don’t give these matters much consideration.

However, if they’re still showing a modicum of curiosity, I delve into a discussion about a term I coined — VIRAL BLITZKRIEG.  Its definition is fairly self-explanatory.

Think in terms of a wireless saturation of information… or “info-bomb.”  But this information would be unique and acutely volatile.  Because its carefully attenuated to spread exponentially in a viral fashion.  Think about it.  Good news travels fast.  But bad news travels much faster (political assassinations, airplane crashes, celebrity deaths, mass shootings, and yes, bomb threats).  Like I was saying, THEY already have your number.  The bad news would likely be coming directly from people you already know.  People you implicitly trust.  Those extremely concerned for your safety and well-being.  People whose behavior has been manipulated by a well-crafted, malicious, convincing hoax.

Another thing: the notion of being able to communicate with someone exclusively via their personal cell number is a bit antiquated.  It’s a very naive, linear approach to wireless communication.  You see, there’s this thing called the internet.  And it has fundamentally changed the nature of how we receive real-time information, particularly regarding social media platforms like facebook and twitter.  And just for the record, there’s no “internet deity” hovering above or regulatory body in charge that sorts everything out, determining what information is true and accurate as opposed to false and inaccurate.  The vast majority of the internet is open sourced and decentralized.  Everyone has a voice.  And those voices can carry weight, particularly when the acquisition and delivery of information is time-sensitive.

Let’s take this conversation and apply it to the recent U.S. elementary school bomb threat plague.  If your kids weren’t evacuated, you may have missed it.  This bomb threat barrage came and went faster than the latest Donald Trump tweeted insult, or “tweetsult.”  It’s already yesterday’s news.

On May 23, 2016, a minimum of 17 states nationwide were bombarded with robocall bomb threats, directed at elementary schools.  In addition, a minimum of 21 schools across England experienced the same dilemma.  All of them were hit near simultaneously.

The FBI referred to the robocalls as a mass “swatting” incident.  Swatting is a relatively new phenomenon.  It’s a cyber crime where someone uses 911 to report a dangerous situation that’s unfolding in real time.  Something like a fictitious hostage situation or a phony armed robbery in progress would be a prime example.  911 receives the information and they forward it to the police who immediately deploy a SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team to that specific location.  As of late, many Hollywood celebrities have tried to conceal their physical addresses for fear of being “swatted.”  Obviously, swatting is a frustrating drain on emergency response personnel, not to mention their equipment (vehicles, bomb sniffing dogs, etc.).

Walmart stores across the United States experienced an incredibly similar robocall swatting incident back in late November of 2015.  Coincidentally, it occurred during the biggest shopping weekend of the holiday season (agsaf.org/the-bomb-threat-extrapolation).  Of course, the FBI investigation is “ongoing.”  One of these days, I’m sure they’ll figure it out.

I’ll go out on a limb, or distant twig if you will, and conclude that the frequency of these swatting robocalls is going to increase.  From a risk-reward standpoint, the ease of delivery and cost of execution makes it incredibly tempting, especially if there’s no fear of retribution.  The transaction costs, measured in money and quantifiable disruption, are off the charts.  Not to mention creating a perpetual climate of confusion and fear.

So you just learned how society reacts to swatted robocalls.  And these are the administrators and trained professionals.  Newsflash: This is the easy stuff to contend with.

This leads me back to the concept of a “viral blitzkrieg.”

Exactly what will transpire when a significant number of individuals are simultaneously targeted in a large, confined crowd (stadium, ballpark, arena, motor speedway, etc.)?

If it was just the robocalls, I’d be concerned.  But there are about a dozen other ways to transmit malicious hoax information via cell.  Oh, it’s probably nothing to worry about.  I’m sure everyone has everything figured out… even though nobody’s allowed to publicly acknowledge this hypothetical threat exists.  In any event, I’m sure there will be a thorough investigation… AFTER a tragedy takes place.  That should be of tremendous comfort to the families of loved ones who were injured, trampled or crush asphyxiated.