News & Blog

Criminal Charge For Sending Flashing Tweet To Epileptic

By Francis West on 22nd March 2017

A man has been arrested after he alleged tweeted a flashing animated strobe-style picture, which triggered an epileptic seizure in the recipient.

US police found (after searching sender 29-year-old John Rayne Rivello’s computer) that he had been researching the triggers of epileptic seizures online.

Part of a Planned Hate Campaign?

Further forensic searches of Maryland-based Mr Rivello’s computer by police found more evidence that the sending of the flashing image to the victim, Texas-based Kurt Eichenwald, appeared to be part of simmering and pre-planned hate campaign. Among the digital evidence, police discovered:

  • Messages sent to other Twitter users about Mr Eichenwald, with some suggesting a plan for a virtual attack. One such message from Rivello was found to say "I hope this sends him into a seizure".
  • A screenshot of an altered Wikipedia page for Mr Eichenwald in Mr Rivello’s iCloud account. The alterations, allegedly made by Mr Rivello’, included a death date for Mr Eichenwald of the day after the (allegedly) malicious tweet had been sent.
  • A message, allegedly sent by Mr Rivello to Mr Eichenwald, saying “You deserve a seizure for your post”.

The Victim

The victim (Mr Eichenwald) is a s+enior writer at Newsweek magazine, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a best-selling author of four books. One book, ‘The Informant’ (from 2000), was made into a film in 2009. Since 1986, Mr Eichenwald has been employed by The New York Times since 1986 and primarily covered Wall Street and corporate topics.

It was widely known that Mr Eichenwald suffered from epilepsy because he had written articles about the condition and his struggles with it, since being diagnosed at the age of 18 in 1979. He was awarded a journalism prize from the Epilepsy Foundation of America for his 1987 article about the condition.

After seeing the flashing image tweeted by Mr Rivello, Mr Eichenwald reportedly suffered an epileptic seizure that has had long lasting effects on his health.

The Motivation?

The motivation for the attack is not clear, although some commentators have alleged that it may be down to Mr Eichenwald’s public criticism of President Donald Trump.

Flashing & Seizures

There is medical evidence to suggest that flashing images that fill the field of vision and that change abruptly in light intensity and luminance could trigger seizures in an epilepsy sufferer.

Technical commentators have pointed out that a seizure-triggering image would have to be very carefully constructed to take account of the visual limitations of Modern LED screens and to make sure that the flash rate of the image fell within the most sensitive range of 15-25 flashes per second.

Cyber Stalking Charge

According to the New York Times, Mr Rivello now faces a charge of criminal cyber-stalking and could face a 10-year sentence.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

This story illustrates how the form of cyber-attacks can be wide and varied, and how determined individuals can use information about victims that they find online to target their attacks. Cyber criminals use similar research and information gathering processes to attack company systems. Most attacks on companies, however, arrive via email in the hope that opening emails and clicking on bogus links can enable the loading of malware onto the victim’s computer. In addition to having anti-virus and email filtering protection, staff should be educated on how to spot and deal with potentially dangerous emails and suspicious contacts. Businesses should also be aware that attacks can also come from disgruntled ex-employees for example, with insider knowledge of IT and data systems.