FBI Confronts a New Kind of Cyber Crime


United States Air Force photo

Friday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested Rayne Rivello in Salisbury, Md. But this was more than just another case of cyberstalking. Rivello’s crime represents a troubling advance in cyber. And the FBI’s ready.


The Obama White House’s publication of Presidential Policy Directive 41 (PPD-41), “United States Cyber Incident Coordination,” late last July acknowledged an escalation to new reaches of cyberwarfare. ClearanceJobs.com noted the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) quick embrace of its role in our nation’s cybersecurity task organization. FBI Assistant Director James Trainor interpreted PPD-41 as a logical extension of the FBI’s already established cybersecurity priorities. “As the lead for threat response,” the FBI announced, “the FBI will play a key role in the event of a significant cyber incident, communicating with field-level coordinators on the ground to coordinate an effective, multi-agency response to the incident.” Then came December 15.

THE gif that (could have) killed

On December 15, 2016, Rayne Rivello effectively ‘deployed’ a GIF image that triggered a potentially deadly physical reaction on its victim. The victim, journalist Kurt Eichenwald, suffers from epilepsy. Rivello, armed with that knowledge, designed a strobe-light GIF that could throw an epileptic into a seizure. And it worked. When Eichenwald opened the file sent through Twitter, the strobing light sparked a severe seizure that hospitalized Eichenwald. He was reportedly “incapacitated for several days, lost feeling in his left hand and had trouble speaking for several weeks.”

taking cyber bullying to new heights

Cyber bullying that culminates in actual harm to a victim is nothing new. Targets of intensive cyberbullying may suffer psychologically and suffer extreme mental anguish. And some cyberbullying has caused victims to harm themselves. The Eichenwald incident is different. Rivello himself caused the harm as surely as if he’d fired a gun. “With this case,” reports New York Times’ Cecilia Kang, “Mr. Rivello is said to have designed the attack specifically around the victim’s medical condition.” With that, the FBI charged Rivello with “criminal cyberstalking with the intent to kill or cause bodily harm.” This incident, Kang reports, “has shown how online tools can be deployed as weapons capable of physical harm.”


Rivello’s success and, now, notoriety has inspired others to follow his lead. According to Kang, Eichenwald reported that “since the Dec. 15 message, 40 more accounts have sent him strobe light images.” So, while Eichenwald has to stay on guard, he may not be the last victim of this sort of very physical cyberattack, and certainly others will be experimenting with new ways to harm recipients of what Eichenwald’s attorney describes as simply a different kind of bomb: “’This electronic message was no different than a bomb sent in the mail or anthrax sent in an envelope.’”

I’m reminded of Stephen King’s 2006 thriller Cell. In Cell, one review explains, “King taps into readers fears of technological warfare and terrorism. Mobile phones deliver the apocalypse to millions of unsuspecting humans by wiping their brains of any humanity, leaving only aggressive and destructive impulses behind.” For a thriller, Cell was a good read.

King’s apocalyptic vision may be a long way off, but Rivello has demonstrated we may be a step closer. It is not difficult to imaging a widely coordinated, synchronized deployment of some electronic sequence with effects similar to Rivello’s GIF. Even a sound or image widely deployed that could induce, at least temporarily, headaches, dizziness, or temporary distraction or confusion could have a substantial effect on a military with iPhone in every hand.

And for all the wild conspiracy theories that have grown around Project MKULTRA since 1977’s Joint Hearing of the Select Committee on Intelligence, MKULTRA at least demonstrated, even back in the 1950s and 1960s, an apparently very real belief in the potential security advantages of behavior-control methods. We’ve come a long way since then, technologically speaking.

A strobing GIF may just be a first step.

Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.

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