May 8, 2008

Hacker Activity Causes Seizures in Highly Vulnerable Audience

On Easter weekend, a hacker who didn't intend to steal visitors' personal information hit the Epilepsy Foundation's Web site. Instead the hacker posted rapidly flashing images on the foundation's Web site, causing many migraines and near-seizure reactions.

"This was clearly an act of vandalism with the intent to harm people, and we shut the attack down immediately," said Eric R. Hargis, president and CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation.

"We've established deterrents in the system to prevent similar incidences."

People with photosensitive epilepsy are sensitive to flashing or flickering objects. Oftentimes, these objects can induce seizures, or seizure-like activity.

Many people who viewed the at-first harmless-looking messages recently posted on the Foundation's forums involuntarily froze when they saw what was posted, even if they didn't experience a full-on seizure, the foundation said.

"They were out to create seizures," said Ken Lowenberg, senior director of Web and print publishing for the foundation.

The FBI is now investigating the source of the harmful images, while visitors to the Web site's support forum are no longer allowed to post animated images.

In another recent attack, hackers exploited a simple coding vulnerability in Sen. Barack Obama's Web site to redirect users visiting the community blogs section to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's official campaign site.

"I count this in the same category of teenagers who think it's funny to put a cat in a bag and throw it over a clothesline - they don't realize how cruel it is," said Paul Ferguson, a security researcher at antivirus software maker Trend Micro Inc.

"It was an opportunity waiting to happen for some mean-spirited kid."

Recently, a logo animation for the 2012 Olympics in Britain caused thousands of people to experience seizures, and others have reported seizures and migraines caused by video games and animated TV series.

The foundation estimates that more than 3 million American have epilepsy, while about 3 percent of those people have photosensitive epilepsy.


On the Net:

Epilepsy Foundation of America