By Nathan Barton
A recent story states that a Dallas-area media reporter-writer has gotten the FBI to arrest a man in Maryland for sending him a tweet that triggered a epileptic seizure, which was a known hazard for the journalist. The Dallas News reports that Eichenwald’s attorney compared the incident to mailing a bomb or an envelope with anthrax spores to someone. The federal charges are “cyberstalking.”
Based on the reports of evidence supposedly gathered from the accused stalker’s on-line records, it appears to be an actual attempt to do harm to the Dallas reporter/commentator. Eichenwald claims that forty people sent him strobes after they discovered that strobe lights could trigger seizures.
Knowing very little about this, I don’t know whether or not you have to open a tweet in order to see something that clearly is more than a few words (the infamous 140-character with spaces protocol). Can you send videos? A still photo could not (as far as I know) produce a strobe effect. (Apparently you CAN send videos, according to CNN – if you believe CNN.) But I suspect that you have to turn on the video when you receive it.
Clearly, Eichenwald is one of those gullible people recently discussed by Chris Campbell, suffering from one the Six Digital Vices. But just because you can and do dodge the bullet, does that mean that the guy shooting at you was committing a crime? (Or if you dodge the cream pie, should the gal throwing it at you be charged for assault?)
Mama’s Note: As for the “guy shooting at you,” it matters not if he misses. It is still assault with a deadly weapon, and absolutely a crime. The cream pie? Probably an assault as well, unless it is part of a stunt agreed upon by both parties. This cyber strobe thing is a whole new area, I think. But Eichenwald is a total fool if he opens each video or attachment sent to him, and especially after an initial event that might harm him. He has to take full responsibility for any of the subsequent “strobes” he actually watched.
Now obviously, since Eichenwald is still alive, the Maryland guy’s attempt to kill him, and maybe even harm him through a seizure, failed. The attempt happened months ago, it seems. Which raises further questions about whether or not it was a real, serious attempt, or just a way to blow off steam and get the supposed victim riled up. Is it really possible to trigger a severe, life-threatening seizure by way of a strobe tweet? Or is that just an urban legend?
Mama’s Note: It very easily could be a serious trigger for an epileptic seizure, but very few people actually die from such an event, however it is triggered. Sort of like a migraine headache. You think you’ll die and afraid you won’t… but you know going in you won’t.
Maybe it is like making a voodoo doll of someone, and sticking pins in it, or putting it in hot coals or ice – if you believe in sympathetic magic, are you assaulting the person you made the doll to be? Is it a crime if HE also believes in sympathetic magic? If the person dies from fright when he sees or leaned about the pin-stabbing (or worse), is the person doing the pin-poking committing murder?
But back to the main point – is what strobe boy did a crime? Hard to say, I guess.
If someone 2,000 miles a way sends you something that he thinks will harm or even kill you, do you have the right to get government to go after him and try and punish him, or at least stop him from doing it? Assuming that ANY government is legitimate, one of the few “legitimate” functions is to protect people from other people (and organizations, like governments) who what to kill, harm, steal, or otherwise deny them rights (you know, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (which includes the right to own things!). Even most libertarians would say yes.
But where do you draw the line?
A few years back, an objector to mining sand and gravel on a property (by the owner and his partners) claimed that the reason THAT particular piece of property was being mined is because:
a. The guy wanting to do the mining hated his (rather distant) cousin (who was the live-in lover of the objector who lived downstream from the site
b. The guy hated his cousin so much he wanted to kill him.
c. The cousin had a bad heart condition.
d. Too much iron in the water you drink can trigger serious complications of certain heart conditions (including the one the cousin had) and can lead to premature death.
e. By mining the sand, the natural iron present in the deposits would be exposed to water and the water would dissolve the iron, raising the level of dissolved iron in the river water.
f. The cousin’s drinking water supply came from the river downstream of the sand mining, and would therefore have a higher iron content, which would soon kill the cousin.
The objectors even had doctors and other experts to support this chain of cause and effect. The state agency (and county government) responsible for issuing permits for the mining required the applicant to take and analyze samples of water to see if the iron content of the water increased enough to reach the levels which would trigger (either short term or long term) the fatal heart condition. It did not, but only at unexpected fairly high cost to prove otherwise.
Apparently, today, the objector would only have to file federal charges of assault or attempted assault and attempted murder to get the guy who wanted to mine (and all of us ‘co-conspirators’) arrested and tried for these crimes.
That may not be a great analogy to this tweet-seizure case. I’m sure my readers can think of better. But the point is NOT whether it is possible to injure or harm someone by doing something that may or may not make sense. The point is whether or not that is (a) really aggression which could physically harm a person enough to possibly kill him, and (b) whether that is really something that is serious enough that multiple governments should use money stolen from taxpayers to pursue, prosecute, and punish?
Although I don’t know the answer (and am asking my readers for their thoughts), my first inclination is to think how ridiculous and silly this is. Setting aside questions of legitimacy of government and stealing tax money from people, doesn’t the FBI supposedly have better things to do? And really, doesn’t this journalist have better things to do than quiver in fear that someone hates him so much that they’d try something outlandish like this to get back at him? I do not see the logic of the attorney claiming that this is no different than a letter bomb or an anthrax letter.
One thing this does show is how incredibly uncivil, hate-filled, and divided our 21st Century society in the Fifty States has become.
As far as my answer to that sort of attack, I don’t have one, although presumably such answers will emerge as the threat does. I prefer the non-state answers, of course. Non-state malware protection programs have done more to protect me than state laws against malware ever have or ever will.
Sounds like a good answer to me, like all situational awareness, locking the doors, etc. In the end, I am responsible for my own life and safety… but there are no guarantees in that. Life is risky. 🙂
So, if this is assault, is a spam e-mail that might introduce malware (depending on my security precautions and operating system) also an assault? Are the Nigerian spammers then serial “assaultists”?
Go ahead, stranger. Send me an e-mail with an attachment of any kind. Watch while nothing happens. Because I have common (some would say very common) sense.
Yes indeed, John. That’s the way I look at it. But if I happen to need to go out at night, even though I know I’m safer at home then, the person who attempts to mug me will get shot. A great many such things will have to be negotiated, and the “legal” system needs to be composed of arbitrators, free market insurance carriers and private security providers. The “one size fits nobody” system today is a lose/lose for everyone except those politicians and bureaucrats who profit from it… both money and ever increasing power over others.
I agree wholeheartedly with what you say in your reply. I still submit — addressing only the specific situation in the post — that there is a simple situational awareness factor that safeguards the intended victim without involving any outside agency.
Most often, for sure. Belt AND suspenders, however, are valuable in the exceptions. And you never know when the exceptions will come along. 🙂
Vis a vis situational awareness and taking precautions, you’re absolutely right. But that’s orthogonal to the question of whether or not what happened to Eichenwald constitutes an assault.
It’s obviously a good idea to go armed when walking alone at night through a bad part of town when everyone knows that you’re carrying a large amount of cash (it’s obviously a good idea to go armed always). But if someone walks up to you and threatens your life if you don’t hand over the cash, they’re robbing you whether you are armed or not.
It’s obviously a bad idea for a college girl who doesn’t want to have sex to sashay through a frat house wearing nothing but a g-string and pasties. But if she’s forced to have sex, it’s rape whether she did that or not.
Were there precautions Eichenwald could have taken, such as not opening attachments, or having someone else open them before he looked at them to make sure there was nothing seizure-inducing in them? Sure — and I predict that in the not too distant future there will be more automated precautions, e.g. browser plugins or malware detection program features that can automatically scan for e.g. strobing and warn the user.
But if sending an email attachment intended to cause a seizure is an assault, it’s an assault whether Eichenwald could and should have been more prepared/situationally aware or not.
No argument, and the on line type of attack is obviously different than a physical attack in person. All I’m saying is that this sort of problem will have to be addressed by means other than armed resistance – or government crackdowns. I don’t have a good answer. You were going to explore this topic, I think. What is your answer to this sort of attack? That’s the question.
“the on line type of attack is obviously different than a physical attack in person”
Actually, that’s not obvious. Lasers are just light and the “Active Denial System” is just microwaves, but if you get physically damaged by one of those, how obviously different is it from being physically damaged by a .45 ACP round or a 155mm artillery shell, or a 500-pound bomb?
The Eichenwald incident as described is actually a minor variation on what science fiction author Ken Macleod calls the “Langford Visual Hack” after another science fiction author’s (David Langford’s) “basilisks” — ” which crash the human mind by triggering thoughts that the mind is physically or logically incapable of thinking.”
In Macleod’s story, the Langford Visual Hack allows the hacker to seize control of someone else’s body just “entering code” into someone’s brain by putting something in front of their eyes.
Would a basilisk (that crashes your brain) or Langford Visual Hack (that enables the hacker to seize control of your brain and use it) be an attack/assault/immigration of force? If so, why would merely inducing seizure in the same way not be?
All good questions. The answers will have to be found with reasoned investigation and rational action. I don’t know the answer. 🙂 And some things just don’t have a good answer.
Mr. Barton is a better man than I, allowing his thoughts to be critiqued in the column itself AND in the comments. Oddly enough, the person doing the inline commentary doesn’t seem to allow her own columns to be similarly critiqued. But perhaps I’ve missed it.
Welcome, JdL. You, and any others, are free to make comments any time, critical or otherwise. 🙂 Nathan and I are co-bloggers here, but I’m the owner and publisher. We don’t always agree, but we’ve worked together successfully for many long years.
Just when you think that things cannot get more stupid. Some one once said to me “Smile things could be worst”, Well I did smile and yes things got worst.
Always loved that joke… until it wasn’t a joke anymore. sigh
This is one I’ve been thinking about too. It seems odd to classify the transmission of information — which is all a photo or video is — as assault. But I’m open to the argument that it is.
By way of analogy, the bites of most of North America’s venomous snakes are seldom fatal. But if I put a rattlesnake in a box and mail it to you with the intent of you getting bit when you open the box, I’d classify that as an assault and possibly as attempted murder. Sure, I sent it from 2,000 miles away, and sure, it COULD die en route, or it COULD slither out of the box and go away without biting you, or the bite COULD be just a painful inconvenience rather than killing you, but the attempt was made.
I suspect that would be the case too, Thomas. Certainly, things like this would need to be dealt with by your insurance carrier and a security firm (see The Probability Broach) even in a free world, but I suspect such threats would be even more rare than they are now. Without the politics and power plays, maybe not likely ever… at least I hope so. A snake would be a nasty find, of course. But I can’t imagine opening more shipments without making sure no snake was enclosed.
Nice reference to the Probability Broach. This case and many others are a good argument for “First kill all the lawyers” and second, legalize dueling.
Let’s not paint with too broad a brush here. 🙂 I happen to know several honest and reliable lawyers. They all carry a gun too, and are happy to have anyone else carry as well. As for the dueling… nothing should be “illegal” between two consenting adults who agree to the terms. I would prefer arbitration and so forth myself, but a duel might be called for in some cases. Again, it won’t work unless both parties agree to the terms.