We all know cybercrime can cause serious damage. From plain online bullying to sophisticated mega-hacking, the results of cyber attacks can be disastrous, leading to emotional distress and significant financial loss. But generally speaking, no one imagines that online attacks could cause direct physical harm to someone, like a gun or a knife would. Well think again.
Through Twitter, a man in Maryland allegedly sent an animated image to Newsweek journalist Kurt Eichenwald, which read “You deserve a seizure for your posts” in large letters with a blinding strobe light. Eichenwald, who was known to suffer from epilepsy, immediately suffered a seizure after seeing the image. The author of the tweet has since been arrested by the FBI and charged with cyberstalking with intent to kill or cause bodily harm, which could carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years. More importantly, a grand jury has deemed the seizure-inducing tweet to be a deadly weapon.
In the words of Vivek Krishnamurthy, assistant director at the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School:
“This is an interesting and unique case in that there are lots of online attacks that can have physical consequences, such as an attack on an electrical grid or the control of air traffic control. But this is distinguishable because it is a targeted physical attack that was personal, using a plain-Jane tool.”
Tor Ekeland, a New York defense attorney who specializes in federal cyber crimes, also chimed in on the issue, highlighting the novelty of this type of accusation :
It is, perhaps, the first time an animated image sent via Twitter has been legally defined as a “deadly weapon” […] I’m unaware of anybody being criminally prosecuted for this. If it’s not the first time, it’s one of the first times this has happened.”
Thus, something as seemingly harmless as a tweet could now be considered a deadly weapon. Oh how times have changed. This attack clearly highlights technology’s very harmful potential. While there are a number of provisions in the criminal code pertaining to cyber crime, it seems none truly deal with the notion of direct bodily harm. Once again we’re faced with a situation where the law needs to catch up to our ever-changing modern tech landscape.