Image: Kenny Eliason via Unsplash

CISA's Easterly the target of ‘harrowing’ swatting incident

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly’s home was swatted late last month, another incident in what has become a nationwide trend targeting state and federal government officials.

Police in Arlington County, Virginia, say they are investigating a 911 call placed slightly before 9 p.m. on December 30 that falsely claimed a shooting had occurred inside a residence on the block where Easterly lives. CISA confirmed on Monday that the call was aimed at Easterly's residence, and that she was home alone at the time.

“Responding officers made contact with the occupant of the residence, determined no shooting had occurred and that there were no injuries associated with the call for service,” according to an incident summary from the Arlington County Police Department, which did not provide Easterly’s name or address. Recorded Future News established the connection to Easterly’s residence after following up on a tip from a CISA source.

It’s unclear why Easterly, who is not a household name, would be targeted. The CISA leader issued a statement to Recorded Future News warning of the dangers of swatting.

“One of the most troubling trends we have seen in recent years has been the harassment of public officials across the political spectrum, including extreme incidents involving swatting and direct personal threats. These incidents pose a serious risk to the individuals, their families, and in the case of swatting, to the law enforcement officers responding to the situation,” she said.

“While my own experience was certainly harrowing, it was unfortunately not unique. In particular, several of our nation’s election officials have also been targeted with this type of harassment and other threats of violence,” she added. “The men and women of both parties who run our elections work tirelessly to ensure their security and integrity. We at CISA, along with our partners, will continue to support these election heroes as they work every day to safeguard our most sacred democratic process.”

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CISA Director Jen Easterly. Image: Billington CyberSecurity

Swatting is the term for a bogus call made to law enforcement with the express purpose of drawing them to a location, usually a home, where they are led to believe a crime has been committed or may be in progress. The dangerous prank results in a forceful response from local police or SWAT teams, who don’t know the call is a hoax.

Examples of swatting calls against public officials have increased in recent weeks, targeting politicians of both parties, judges overseeing cases against former President Donald Trump and even the White House itself, after a caller claimed on January 15 there was a fire and someone was trapped inside. Election officials in Georgia and Maine have been swatted recently.

Last week White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre condemned the nationwide outbreak, saying such calls are “creating a danger and a risk to our society.”

“This is something obviously the Secret Service is going to monitor very closely as it relates to us specifically at the White House or this administration,” she said during a virtual briefing.

The stunt has become so rampant that Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee whose home was also swatted last month, introduced legislation that would expand the federal criminal hoax statute to prohibit “swatting” hoaxes and impose severe penalties, including up to 20 years in prison.

More Coverage: Swatting started in the gaming world and it’s coming for the rest of us

CISA, which is responsible for helping to protect elections and U.S. infrastructure from foreign hackers, has become the subject of threats and conspiracy theories from far-right Republicans ever since it played a central role in debunking Trump’s claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential race.

Those critics allege the agency’s effort to combat online disinformation amounts to censorship of conservatives and infringes on free speech rights. In a case brought last year against CISA by Republican attorneys general from several states, an appeals court ruled the agency “likely violated” the First Amendment in its interactions with private social media companies.

The Biden administration challenged the ruling, which the Supreme Court froze, allowing the federal government to work with the platforms until the justices review the case this summer.

Swatting began as a tactic used by online gamers seeking to disrupt rival players, according to Lauren Krapf, a swatting expert who is the director of policy and impact at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Technology and Society.

Calling swatting a “tactic of digital abuse,” Krapf said the practice is increasingly common outside of the gaming world and that the targeting of groups of individuals belonging to a single institution in particular is a growing trend.

“It's really shifted into a tool to target individuals or interrupt institutions,” Krapf said.

Krapf added that the swatting of senior government officials is “incredibly concerning.”

“If an individual is targeting this level of people in their homes … knowing that these individuals have the authority that they do over a given jurisdiction or work that they do, I think all of that is an indicator that this tool is really being used strategically,” Krapf said.

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Suzanne Smalley

Suzanne Smalley

is a reporter covering privacy, disinformation and cybersecurity policy for The Record. She was previously a cybersecurity reporter at CyberScoop and Reuters. Earlier in her career Suzanne covered the Boston Police Department for the Boston Globe and two presidential campaign cycles for Newsweek. She lives in Washington with her husband and three children.

Martin Matishak

Martin Matishak

is the senior cybersecurity reporter for The Record. Prior to joining Recorded Future News in 2021, he spent more than five years at Politico, where he covered digital and national security developments across Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community. He previously was a reporter at The Hill, National Journal Group and Inside Washington Publishers.