Man arrested for strobe-light tweet said to have caused reporter's seizure

WASHINGTON • The arrest of a man accused of giving a well- known journalist a seizure by sending him a flashing image online represents a new kind of prosecution for a new kind of crime.

Newsweek's Kurt Eichenwald suffered a seizure in Dallas after viewing the flashing animation when he received it via Twitter late last year, according to a statement from the US Justice Department.

Mr Eichenwald, 55, had written about his epilepsy and publicly described a similar attack several weeks before the Dec 15 incident, and the authorities said the alleged attacker sent the journalist the image in an attempt to hurt him as revenge for what he saw as the reporter's critical coverage of President Donald Trump.

Mr Eichenwald was incapacitated for days after the incident, lost feeling in one hand and had trouble speaking for weeks, according to his lawyer who also said the use of a strobe light against a known epileptic was "no different than a bomb sent in the mail or anthrax sent in an envelope".

Experts on cyber security said the incident was not the first in which technology had been used to expose medically vulnerable people to injury, but some said it was the first time they have heard of prosecutors bringing criminal charges in such a case.

Although epilepsy is relatively common - about 4 per cent of Americans have some form of the condition - very few have seizures triggered by flashing lights.

"This is a new era," said Dr Kevin Fu, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan.

The authorities took John Rayne Rivello, of Maryland, into custody last Friday on suspicion of sending Mr Eichenwald the image along with the message: "You deserve a seizure for your post."

Rivello, 29, has no previous criminal history, public records show.

"What is new, because of the technology, is the ease with which certain individuals can be targeted across state lines by remotely distant perpetrators," said law professor Andrea Matwyshyn at Northeastern University.

Although epilepsy is relatively common - about 4 per cent of Americans have some form of the condition - very few have seizures triggered by flashing lights.

"If you were going to target a particular person with epilepsy, you would have to know that this particular person was light sensitive, and that would be very rare," said Dr Jacqueline French, the Epilepsy Foundation's chief scientific officer and a professor at New York University.

Mr Eichenwald has some 319,000 Twitter followers and, since the Dec 15 attack, 40 more accounts have sent him strobe lights. He has passed their information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2017, with the headline 'Man arrested for strobe-light tweet said to have caused reporter's seizure'. Print Edition | Subscribe