Through his computer in a suburb of Vancouver, the Canadian teenager carried out a yearlong campaign of harassment and mayhem across North America.
He targeted mostly female gamers who had spurned his friend requests, chats and obscene demands. His weapons: Making bogus emergency calls that brought police SWAT teams to their homes. Hacking into their computers and accounts. Posting their personal information online.
His crimes disrupted lives from Toronto to Tucson, caused a school lockdown in Florida and briefly shut down part of Disneyland. In January 2014, his false call about a hostage-taking brought police to a home on West 136th Street in Burnsville. The family who lived there later found identity thieves had opened fraudulent accounts in their name, after the hacker circulated their financial data online.
On July 9, the 17-year-old who caused all this trouble, identified only as “BLA” in court records because of privacy laws, received a 16-month prison sentence from a judge in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. He had pleaded guilty to 23 charges but came across to psychologists as “callous and remorseless,” according to the judge’s order.
The digital age has opened a Pandora’s box of harassment techniques with their own nomenclature: “doxxing,” for example, is posting someone’s sensitive documents or private information online. Made easier by Internet phone services, “swatting” means tricking the police to bring a massive response to an unsuspecting resident.
The Canadian teen’s crimes fit a pattern, said Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland and author of the 2014 book, “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.” The victims are primarily young women, who are stalked online with threats of rape and sexual humiliation, with the intention of silencing them by forcing them offline, Citron said.
All of that can be accomplished by someone behind a computer thousands of miles away.
“We underestimate how powerful these network tools can be,” Citron said. They “can be abused in ways that really affect the way people live their lives.”
Citron, who has studied online harassment for seven years, said she’s heartened by Internet companies taking stronger action to stop “revenge porn” and other forms of stalking and extortion, as well as a commitment by some attorneys general to crack down on these illegal practices.
Working with law enforcement agencies in two countries, Burnsville police investigator Bryan Bye helped link the swatting to the Canadian teen’s other crimes, according to his department’s 2014 annual report. Bye declined to comment on the case, because a second suspect is still being investigated, and referred comment to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in British Columbia. A call to that agency was not returned last week.
Provincial Court Judge Patricia Janzen’s sentencing memorandum offers a detailed account of the young man’s transgressions. They began in late 2013 and early 2014 with phony threats of bombs planted near Disneyland’s Space Mountain ride and the Burnaby, B.C., campus of Simon Fraser University.
He quickly turned to targeting individuals, many of them players of the video game League of Legends, according to Canadian news reports. A day after the Burnsville harassment, a female gamer in Waterloo, Ontario, refused the teen’s demand to “show her butt on the Internet” or face retaliation. So he shut down her Internet connection and sent a cab to her house three times. Then he called the Waterloo police and said he was an ex-boyfriend who had taken everyone in the woman’s home hostage and planted bombs there.
The police sent its Emergency Response Unit before determining it was a hoax. The teen also placed a Craigslist ad posing as the gamer and soliciting sex, changed her e-mail address and hacked her Amazon account.
The teen was arrested and released on bail in March 2014, and again in October, but that did not deter him from going back online. After another phony emergency call, 32 police officers and a helicopter were dispatched to a house in Ontario, Calif. Fort Meade Middle-Senior High School in Fort Meade, Fla., was put on lockdown after he said he would attack the school.
More victims were “swatted” in Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts. In December, he brazenly livestreamed his own “swatting” of a home in suburban Columbus, Ohio. Four days later, the teen was taken into custody, and he’s been in jail ever since.
Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act allows a two-year maximum prison term. In her “reasons for sentence,” the judge noted the teen’s troubled upbringing, with an abusive, addicted father and mother who suffered from depression, and urged him to do something constructive with his life. She also prohibited him from contacting his 25 admitted victims and five others.
Because of time already served, the teen could be released in March.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at email@example.com or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.