The Tech Herald

Targeted physical attack takes aim at Epilepsy

by Steve Ragan - Mar 31 2008, 21:00

The foolishness, and cruelty of a recent scripted attack, shocked many in the security field, and regular internet users alike.

Over Easter weekend there was some disturbing activity on the Epilepsy Foundation of Americas forum. A raid conducted by “Internet Hate Machine” targeted the forum, with images and patterns in selected posts designed to trigger photo or pattern sensitive seizures in community members.

RyAnne was one of several people who were caught in the raid on Easter weekend.

RyAnne was one of several people who were caught in the raid on Easter weekend.

The story was picked up by Wired.com, thanks to mutual contacts held by one EFA community member. RyAnne Fultz, a 33-year old IT worker in Idaho, who spoke to Wired, was kind enough to speak on the record to Tech Herald this weekend. She offered not only details about the attack, but shed light into a world that many of us do not know.

The attack started March 22. Messages on the community forums started to appear that contained malicious JavaScript, and embedded images designed to trigger Epileptic seizures. The overall aim of the raid, according to posts made by the Internet Hate Machine, was to cause massive trauma, and purely for “lulz,” which in this case means petty sick fun at the expense of others. (Lulz is a term for something funny, and rarely is it malicious.)

When the attack started, posts referenced several groups, including Anonymous. Anonymous is the name given to a group of people who have taken issue with the Church of Scientology. The media has called them hackers and criminals, some call them genius. The point is they are exactly what the name suggests, anyone, everyone, Anonymous. The IHM too are Anonymous, but not the same as those who are fighting the CoS.

From one IHM posting, “The response from the protestfags regarding the epilepsy raid cracked me up to no end. it is now apparent that the best way to troll them is simply to be the most immoral anon that we can be, causing more negative media coverage, and more baaawing newfags.”

“No matter what the newfags might want, they can not destroy the true Anonymous. What the /i/nsurgents do not realize is that Anonymous and /i/ have the same goals, only the true Anonymous has valid goals. Attacking support sites for epileptics is not lulzy. Taking down a white supremacist is,” reads a comment post to Wired form Anonymous.

“Anonymous, peacefully campaigning against the Church of Scientology, condemn this attack. There is also little doubt that those who would attack a site such as this [EFA], and unprovoked, are the same 'Unnamed People' who covered the anti-Church of Scientology Campaign wiki page, … with the most horrendous filth porn and human gore imagery to be found online,” another Anon post adds.

“Sadly anonymity is a catch all, literally anyone can and will say, "I am Anonymous", even The Church of Scientology is "Anonymous" when they connect to public FTPs. You can not have the security of anonymity both inside and out, without the problems of defending against anonymous insurgents, just ask Wikileaks. Condolences to any harmed. This attack, as any violent attack, is condemned by Anonymous,” the posting concluded on Slashdot.

While there are reports that this was the first physical attack aimed at the Epilepsy community, those reports are false. In 2007, a similar attack took place on Coping With Epilepsy (CWE), an internet web site that serves as a peer support network for people with epilepsy. The attackers flooded CWE with hateful messages, images of hardcore porn, and animated images similar to those in the EFA attack in an attempt to induce seizures in the photosensitive members (and guests) of the site.

"I was able to trace back the source of the attack to a handful of sites where the perpetrators were instigating the event," said Bernard Ertl, CWE Administrator. "It was just a bunch of very immature people delighting in their attempts to cause people misery. Attacking sites is just a way to pass time for them. Unfortunately, this time they tried to hurt people. Seizures are not a laughing matter.”

The attack on CWE occurred during November, which is National Epilepsy Awareness Month.

The Human Aspect:

What about the human aspect to this attack, how are they coping? With so much detail given to the attack, and hype given to the attackers, the people who were targets themselves are mostly being left out of the big picture. I spent some time talking to RyAnne, and she gave me a rare look into the mind of the victim of these raids.

“I'm a geek, it didn’t shock me. I’m shocked it didn’t happen sooner,” she said when asked about whether or not she was shocked to see such a malicious and direct assault on people with Epilepsy.

She wanted to stress to me that the EFA took action as soon as they could after being alerted to the issue. (The total reaction time was 12 hours, not bad for a holiday weekend.) However, why was this allowed to happen? In response to that question, RyAnne offered some thoughts on the subject. “Your normal person would never think this maliciously, its too hard to step out of the mindset,” she said, explaining that the providers of the forum, a company other than the EFA as it turns out, simply did not have it in them to think that maliciously.

RyAnne had a rough time after viewing the forum, while ok now, “My average is about fifteen a day (seizures) I topped thirty Sunday.” As for the mental aspect attack, “There are new posters on the boards and I know we should be opening our arms to them...it’s just, I keep thinking, maybe it's one of THEM. Or am I just more paranoid than most,” comment by Terri on the EFA reads.

“I feel the same way. Anytime I see a new user and/or someone that hasn't posted much, I prepare for the worst. It's a shame this has made us so paranoid and on guard. I feel sorry for the new users who are actually legit,” a user, Heather, adds in response.

“We learned a lesson, and unfortunately it has left a lot of other people paranoid. Give us some time, and the paranoia will fade,” RyAnne tells me.

The EFA is a rather strong community, which most of the people online do not understand. From reading some of the IHM posts, and a few other comments online, the consensus is clear, most of those who attacked the forum wanted to inflict the type of seizure most associated with Epilepsy. The correct term for what most associate with Epilepsy is called a Tonic Clonic (TC), or a Grand Mal seizure.

The EFA defines a TC as, “…most conspicuous type of seizure. Generalized seizures which usually begin with a sudden cry, fall and rigidity (tonic phase) followed by muscle jerks, shallow breathing or temporarily suspended breathing and change in skin color (clonic phase), possible loss of bladder or bowel control; seizure usually lasts a couple of minutes, followed by a confusion and fatigue.”

There are various levels of Epilepsy, and five different types of seizures. The different types, Simple Partial, Complex Partial, Absence, Myoclonic, and TC, can occur depending on the person and the type of Epilepsy they have. What the attackers expected, was not what happened in the reported cases. This is because all of them were seriously misinformed about the topic of Epilepsy. Different people will have different triggers. In addition, only a small number of people have any type of reaction to image or pattern based triggers. (3-6% according to medical stats found online.)

These triggers are what will start a seizure, and during the attack two types of triggers were used. There first were patterns, wavy lines in black and white or vibrant colors that appear to move because of design, and animated images that rapidly blink alternating colors. The attackers wanted to trigger a TC in the people who viewed the posts on the forum. What really happened after viewing the malicious posts varied from person to person.

Most of the people who spoke about what happened to them reported headaches. “I was glued to it,” RyAnne said about her experience when she viewed the malicious images. “A lot of people don’t get the aftermath of a seizure is pain,” she added, confirming that her headache lasted for some time.

However, despite the best efforts the community on the EFA is getting back to normal. “I don’t think they get what they did,” RyAnne explains, “In the long run they hurt our security, but made us stronger by forcing us to talk to one another and meet more people. I have talked to more people in the last week in PM (Private Message), than I ever have. People checking to see if I was ok, and reminding me that we got through it.”

The EFA has worked to prevent this type of attack in the future. They have removed access to hot linking, posting of GIF images, and disabled JavaScript in posts.

RyAnne made the final comment however, that sums up the future rather well. “These kids will go away my Epilepsy won't. I’m dealing with [something] much larger.”

Education is the key to understanding Epilepsy. Educate yourself here: http://www.epilepsyfoundation.org/about/index.cfm

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