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The latest case of cybercrime: a strobe that induces seizures

HOUSTON — An unusual case of cybercrime is playing out in a Dallas courtroom Monday, with a Maryland man expected to plead guilty to aggravated assault. The victim was a journalist and author. The weapon was a GIF, or animated image, sent on Twitter. And the motive appeared at least in part to be the victim’s criticisms of President Trump.

The case has played out for years in the courts, and the scheduled guilty plea by the defendant, John Rayne Rivello, would be one of the first times the sending of a seizure-inducing tweet was successfully prosecuted as a crime.

Rivello was accused of sending a Twitter message featuring a blinding strobe light to an epileptic author who immediately suffered a seizure upon viewing it in December 2016 in Dallas. The message read, in capital letters: “You deserve a seizure for your posts.”

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Investigators found several digital clues, including a message they said Rivello sent to other Twitter users reading, “I hope this sends him into a seizure,” and screenshots showing the victim’s Wikipedia page with a fake date of death and epilepsy.com’s list of epilepsy seizure triggers.

The victim, Kurt Eichenwald, the author of “The Informant” and a reporter for The New York Times from 1986 to 2006, had been critical of Trump, then a candidate for president, and had appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show just before he received the strobe light message in 2016.

Eichenwald’s attacker also appeared to be motivated by anti-Semitic hatred, according to court documents: The Wikipedia page that Rivello had copied included anti-Semitic references, and the Twitter handle that Rivello used was named @jew_goldstein, with the name Ari Goldstein.

Rivello, 32, a veteran who lived in Salisbury, Md., was arrested in 2017 and charged in federal court with cyberstalking. Later that year, federal prosecutors dropped the charge, allowing the Dallas County District Attorney’s office to proceed with their case against him. Court records in the case indicated the scheduled guilty plea Monday.

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A lawyer for Rivello, Matthew Alford, did not respond to a request for comment.

Eichenwald’s lawyers have likened the attack to sending a bomb in the mail or anthrax in an envelope.

Eichenwald told investigators he had stepped into his home office that evening in 2016 and clicked on the message from @jew_goldstein. The strobe light GIF caused an immediate seizure that lasted about eight minutes, court documents showed. Eichenwald’s wife, Theresa, walked into his office, called 911, and took a picture of the strobing light on his computer with her cellphone.

“This is his wife,” she replied to the Twitter account, “you caused a seizure. I have your information and have called the police to report the assault.”

Federal health officials estimate that 3.4 million Americans are affected by epilepsy, a serious brain disorder that produces seizures that can vary in intensity, from staring spells to severe shaking and collapsing to the floor.