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Hackers Targeted Epilepsy Foundation With Strobe Lights Aiming to Induce Seizures

The foundation has reported at least 30 incidents that targeted their Twitter account and followers last month with GIFs and videos of harmful strobe lights.

During National Epilepsy Awareness Month in November, hackers sent videos, GIFs and images of flashing strobe lights to thousands of followers of The Epilepsy Foundation’s Twitter account, the organization announced on Monday.

The attacks aimed to trigger seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy, which can lead to long-term health issues and even death. Thirty attacks were reported by the foundation in the first week of November. Since then, the Epilepsy Foundation has filed complaints with local authorities and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland.

“These attacks are no different than a person carrying a strobe light into a convention of people with epilepsy and seizures, with the intention of inducing seizures and thereby causing significant harm to the participants,” Allison Nichol, the director of legal advocacy for the organization, said in a statement.

The incident echoes a similar attack against journalist Kurt Eichenwald in December 2016. When Eichenwald sat down in his Dallas home office, he was immediately triggered by a GIF of a strobe light that came across his computer screen. The text on the GIF said: “YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS,” referring to Eichenwald’s controversial commentary on President Trump.

Eichenwald, who has epilepsy, was sent into a seizure and said he would have died if his wife had not quickly discovered him. The man accused of sending the strobe light image to Eichenwald, John Rayne Rivello, is expected to plead guilty to aggravated assault at a hearing recently set for Jan. 31.

In his 2018 civil lawsuit filed in Maryland, Eichenwald’s lawyers have successfully rebutted claims that because there was no “physical contact” between Rivello and Eichenwald, the incident could not be classified as assault. A judge ruled that because GIFs are composed of light, they do strike the eyes of the viewer and can cause a seizure, The Washington Post reported.

Lawyers for Eichenwald have also shown the lasting physical and emotional impact of the cyber attack.

“For a long time he has been unable to hold his grandchild for fear that his lack of control over his limbs will potentially cause an injury to the child,” attorney Steven Lieberman told the Times.

The Eichenwald case gives the Epilepsy Foundation some legal precedent on which to base their own complaints. Nichol told the Post that these attacks need to be “taken seriously” by law enforcement and the general public.

“There needs to be a very aggressive response, both by the foundation and by law enforcement,” Nichol said. “What these people did is incredibly dangerous to people with epilepsy and it just cannot stand.”

About the Author

Haley Samsel is an Associate Content Editor for the Infrastructure Solutions Group at 1105 Media.

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