The Call of Duty swatting demonstrates why phone records should be transparent

In relatively short order, law enforcement has made an arrest in the swatting incident which claimed the life of 28-year-old Andrew Finch of Witchitaw, Kansas. The suspect, Tyler Barriss, will have his day in court of course, but since the police are releasing his name and some details of how the incident unfolded, they seem to be fairly confident that they’ve got their guy. (Emphasis added)

A 25-year-old California man was arrested in connection to an online quarrel between two “Call of Duty” gamers that prompted a hoax call and led to a man being killed by police in Kansas.

Los Angeles police on Friday arrested Tyler Barriss, who law enforcement claimed is the “prankster” who called 911 and made up a story about a kidnapping in Wichita, ABC 7 reported.

Barriss reportedly gave police the address he believed the other gamer lived.

The FBI estimates that roughly 400 cases of swatting occur annually, with some using caller ID spoofing to disguise their number.

Assuming the charges hold up, it won’t be the first time that Barriss has been in this sort of trouble. In 2015 he was convicted of calling in multiple bomb threats to a local news station, prompting a mass evacuation. He was sentenced to two years and eight months on that charge, though local news reports indicate that it’s “unclear” how much time he actually served. It would seem that the message didn’t sink in for him.

While the entire incident was obviously despicable and Barriss alone is responsible for his actions, it’s worth asking if there isn’t more we could be doing to prevent these types of “hoax” incidents. The only way that Barriss and others like him are able to get away with such mayhem (or at least be bold enough to try) is through the use of so-called “spoofing” technology. This is a process which allows callers to falsely mask their phone number, generally using VoIP (Voice-over-Internet-Protocol) technology, leading the recipient of the call to either believe that it’s a local caller or be unable to identify the incoming number. And at least in some cases, it can apparently throw off the police as well.

Is this spoofing even legal? Amazingly enough, it actually is in most cases. The FCC has the 2009 Truth in Caller ID Act in place, but that only makes spoofing illegal if the call can be shown to have been made, “with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongly obtain anything of value.” Why, you might ask, are people able to do this at all? It’s to protect spammers and telemarketers who know that you won’t answer the phone if you saw where the call was coming from. The same set of FCC rules also requires carriers to allow number “blocking” at no cost for all interstate calls so the incoming number shows up as being “not available” on your phone.

Currently, the only option you have to get around at least some of these spoofed calls is by investing in your own private protection, using an app such as TrapCall. (That’s not an endorsement, by the way… just an example. I don’t own that product and have no idea how well it performs.) But even then you can’t eliminate all such instances.

Much of this swatting problem (and numerous other, less serious invasive practices) could be done away with if we ended spoofing and caller ID blocking entirely. Barriss was only bold enough to make his swatting call because he was able to disguise his caller ID. These cretins are using a convenient loophole in the law which was only put in place at the request of telemarketers and mass robo-calling outfits, to inflict real harm. Take that technology away and impose much larger criminal penalties for those found using it and you’ll not only have less swatting, but fewer annoying telemarketers ringing you up all the time.

Also (and this is the part which will really get privacy activists up in arms), carriers obviously have the ability to record the number of the source of all calls as well the ID of the recipient. When combined with location data from the vast majority of phones, they could track down where a call came from in short order, and frequently the name of the person owning the phone. (Yes, disposable “burner” phones are a problem, but that’s a separate discussion.) That information should be made immediately available to law enforcement with a warrant. Nobody guaranteed you anonymity when making phone calls. If you don’t want the recipient to know your phone number, don’t call or text them.

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