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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Web-site hacking has reached a new low, both morally and technically.

Hackers Flood Epilepsy Web Forum With Flashing Lights
Web-site hacking has reached a new low, both morally and technically.

Unknown miscreants had a good time two weekends ago when they posted hundreds of flashing animated images onto discussion boards hosted by the Landover, Md.-based Epilepsy Foundation.

Flashing lights or bold moving patterns can trigger often violent seizures among 3 percent of the estimated 50 million epileptics worldwide.

"I was on the phone when it happened, and I couldn't move and couldn't speak," RyAnne Fultz, who has epilepsy, told Wired News about her reaction to viewing one of the images on March 23.

Fultz's 11-year-old son walked over and closed the browser window after about 10 seconds. Fortunately, she suffered nothing more than a bad headache.

By then, the second day of vandalism on, the jerks had moved on to hijacking the browsers of anyone who clicked on certain forum posts, filling the screens with bright, flashing colors.

Technically, none of this was hacking, since it didn't involve breaking into anyone's Web site, and any snotty kid with a rudimentary knowledge of JavaScript could do it.

The Epilepsy Foundation shut off the discussion board on Sunday for about 12 hours, and the attacks stopped.

"This was clearly an act of vandalism with the intent to harm people," said Eric R. Hargis, the foundation's president and CEO in a statement released Monday.

However, it doesn't seem to have been the first instance. A Texas-based discussion Web site called Coping With Epilepsy said it suffered a similar attack last November.

Epilepsy Foundation Takes Action Against Hackers

The Epilepsy Foundation’s quick reaction to a recent attack by hackers on one of its online forums raises awareness of the need for Web security for some health organizations. On Easter weekend, the Epilepsy Foundation—and those who use its online forums for help, support, suggestions and camaraderie—came under attack by people who posted rapidly flashing images to cause serious injury and harm. The type of epilepsy that causes people to experience seizures upon seeing flashing or flickering images is photosensitive epilepsy.

Barrages of messages are oftentimes problematic for electronic venues, but nothing more than a nuisance, or a potential embarrassment if pornographic images are included in the attacks. But for people with epilepsy, rapidly flashing text or images can cause actual harm to the person viewing the material, because such flashing or flickering objects can bring on seizures, or seizure-like activity. In fact, 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.

“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.”

The Epilepsy Foundation has been on the forefront of efforts to prevent this type of seizure. Three years ago the organization assembled a group of experts on photic- and pattern-induced seizures and released its recommendations for preventing seizures provoked by dynamic light and imaging sources such as television, videogames, websites, motion pictures and other media. The consensus recommendations covered factors, such as light intensity, flicker, contrast, duration and pattern, and the technical parameters within these factors that are most likely to provoke seizures in susceptible individuals.

More than 3 million Americans have epilepsy (approximately one in every 100); while about 3 percent of those people have photosensitive epilepsy. Photosensitive epilepsy has been in the news increasingly over the last few years because it has triggered seizures in people in newsworthy ways, including recently when a logo animation for the 2012 Olympics in Britain caused thousands of people to experience seizures and, previously, when a few years ago an episode of an animated TV series caused thousands of children to experience seizures in Japan. Some video games have also caused children to have seizures even if they’ve never previously displayed any seizure-like behaviors. Such warnings are included on most—if not all—video games today as a result. Though the Japanese government established guidelines following the incidences in that country, the Epilepsy Foundation’s Seizures and Photosensitivity guidelines are the only such recommendations in the United States.

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