Members of internet collective Anonymous have been blamed for an attack on an epilepsy support website, aiming to provoke seizures in victims by tricking them into viewing rapidly-flashing images.
Several users experienced seizures or migraines after falling victim to the attack on the Epilepsy Foundation online forum before it was closed to remove the malicious content and boost security, Wired reported.
Staff at the US foundation said a “handful” of users had been affected before the forum was taken offline.
“Why someone would choose to assault epilepsy sufferers in this way is incomprehensible,” said Epilepsy Action Australia spokeswoman Shauna Round.
Between three and five per cent of all epilepsy sufferers were vulnerable to seizures triggered by flashing lights, shapes or colours, Ms Round said.
One woman who fell victim to the attack said she experienced an unusually severe seizure after her internet browser resized itself to fill the computer screen and display multi-coloured flashing squares.
“I don’t fall over and convulse, but it hurts… I was on the phone when it happened, and I couldn’t move and couldn’t speak,” 33-year-old IT worker RyAnne Fultz, from Ohio, told Wired.
The attackers used harmless-sounding titles to hide their content on the Epilepsy Foundation forum. When users clicked on the title, they were exposed to the images.
Flashing images designed to provoke headaches or sickness in viewers have been posted on the internet before, but this is thought to be the first time they have been used in a deliberate attack on a website frequented by people suffering epilepsy.
Prior to the protests, the group was known for engaging in online pranks such as crashing or overloading websites and annoying or inflaming other internet users — leading some to dub them “griefers”, a makeshift term for people who cause grief.
The term “Anonymous” is used to describe any person who does not give their name online — rather than a specific group — and is connected to several different websites and internet forums.
Not everyone who identifies as a member of Anonymous shares the same intentions. The difference between Anonymous users from different websites is similar to that of factions in an organisation.
Members of one of the main forums used to organise protests against the Church of Scientology said they had not been involved in the attack, and named members of a different website as the likely culprits.
“I’m pretty sure it was them, at least I’ve seen a few people mention it,” one person said, referring to users of a website called eBaum’s World.
“I’m pretty sure I saw a thread about this while browsing ebaumsworld, so yeah, it was probably those f—–s,” said another.
Others blamed members of a third website, 7chan.org. Epilepsy Foundation users said members of that website had planned the attack in advance and since deleted the evidence, Wired reported.
In turn, the administrators of 7chan.org posted an open letter claiming that the attack had been carried out by Scientologists seeking to discredit Anonymous.
“Users of this site did not actually attack those individuals. The Church of Scientology posted numerous threads across many (websites), and then informed people that Anonymous had been attacking victims of epilepsy,” the letter said.
“They did this under their ‘fair game’ policy, to ruin the public opinion of Anonymous, to lessen the effect of their lawful protests against their virulent organization (sic).”
While it may be difficult to pinpoint where the attack came from, an alarming number of users on all three websites downplayed the seriousness of the incident.
“If people are actually vulnerable to such flashing images and yet surf without protection, then I find it difficult to muster up any sympathy for them,” one user said.
“It’s not like they stabbed these patients to death… They put some flashing images on a messageboard, thats (sic) it. Everyone survived,” said another.
However Ms Round said such an attack was potentially dangerous and could result in injury if it triggered a seizure in victims.
“If the person, for example, had a tonic-clonic seizure, they could fall and sustain cuts or fractures or head injuries depending on the circumstances,” she said.
Tonic-clonic seizures are the type most commonly associated with epilepsy and can involve loss of consciousness and muscle spasms.
The forum attack is a major blow for the image of Anonymous, who staged protests against the Church of Scientology in almost 100 cities across the world in February and again in March.
Members of the group claim the church financially exploits its members, suppresses free speech and harasses its critics, while Scientology has branded Anonymous as “cyber-terrorists”.
“It comes as no surprise to us,” said Church of Scientology Australia spokesman Cyrus Brooks of the attack on the Epilepsy Foundation.
“They don’t care about anybody but themselves,” he said.
“If you look at the code of Anonymous, that speaks volumes about their intentions. Their own words belie their recent public assertions.”
Wired speculated that the assault may have been the first computer attack in history to inflict physical harm on its victims.
Epilepsy Action Australia — http://www.epilepsy.org.au/
Epilepsy Foundation forums — http://www.epilepsyfoundation.org/efforums/forum/
Original report on Wired — http://www.wired.com/politics/security/news/2008/03/epilepsy
“Griefers” feature on Wired — http://www.wired.com/gaming/virtualworlds/magazine/16-02/mf_goons