First-Ever Example of a Computer Hack Attacking People's Brains

Neal Stephenson speculated about computer viruses that could crash human brains in his classic novel Snow Crash, but the technology to do something like that has always seemed (luckily) far in the future. Now, however, computer hackers have created a loophole that lets them do it today. Over a month ago, a group of anonymous people exploited a fairly well-known software vulnerability that allows them to flood web forums with a lot of posts. In this case, however, the posts were on an epilepsy site — and many contained images full of flashing icons explicitly designed to cause seizures.

Epileptics visiting the forum clicked on links to the images — which masqueraded as links to helpful medical websites — and were confronted with blinking images that induced migraines and seizures. Other posts contained the flashing images already. It's not yet known how many people were affected, but the FBI is now investigating and the website is being monitored. It is the first known example of a website attack that was also in essence a physical attack.

According to AP:

The hackers who infiltrated the Epilepsy Foundation's site didn't appear to care about profit. The harmful pages didn't appear to try to push down code that would allow the hacker to gain control of the victims' computers, for instance.

"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."

In a similar attack this year, a piece of malicious code was released that disabled software that reads text aloud from a computer screen for blind and visually impaired people.

While these cases of computer-generated brain attacks obviously only work on a specific population, what they reveal is a strong will to engage in these attacks. As brain-computer interfaces become more commonplace, such attacks could affect a broader range of people very quickly.

Hackers Posts Cause Seizures [AP via PhysOrg]

Hackers Assault Epilepsy Patients via Computer [Wired]