Abortion funds band together to sue their cyberattackers

Two years ago, hackers targeted an online abortion fundraiser called the National Abortion Access Bowl-a-Thon. They f...

Posted: Mar 30, 2018 10:23 AM
Updated: Mar 30, 2018 10:23 AM

Two years ago, hackers targeted an online abortion fundraiser called the National Abortion Access Bowl-a-Thon. They flooded it with faulty donations totaling $66 billion and took down the site through a distributed denial of service attack, known as a DDoS attack, according to a recent complaint filed by the organizers of the fundraiser with the US District Court in Massachusetts.

The organizers also say hackers set up sham donation pages to gather personal details from donors, including their credit card information. Some donors received spoof emails from "Adolph Hitler" with anti-abortion messaging, as well as emails containing pictures of fetuses with messages like "I hope I grow up big enough to go bowling someday."

The annual fundraiser is led by the National Network of Abortion Funds, a network of organizations that help facilitate access to and financing for abortions.

Now the NNAF and five of its member organizations that participated in the Bowl-a-Thon are fighting back against the cyberattackers.

The organizations filed a lawsuit Wednesday against a group of mostly unidentified individuals for carrying out what the suit calls a "multi-pronged" cyberattack.

Targets of online harassment, whether through revenge porn, Gamergate or even Pizzagate, have largely had little recourse in the offline world. The suit seeks to unmask the attackers, who are listed as "John Does," and hold them accountable for obstructing access to reproductive services.

There is one person identified in the complaint as possibly being one of the "John Does," the person behind the Twitter account @matthewjames, who the plaintiffs allege was involved based on now-deleted tweets sent by the account. In bringing the suit, the plaintiffs' lawyers hope to be able to ascertain the identities of the people involved, as they will be able to issue subpoenas in an attempt to uncover information about the IP addresses and people behind the attack.

The person behind the @matthewjames account did not respond to requests for comment from CNN.

The suit asks that the attackers be ordered to pay an unspecified amount in damages.

"The hack marked a moment where we felt we had become more visible to extremists, and none of us were sure what violence, whether online or otherwise, might occur next," Jenni Kotting, NNAF's communications director, told CNN.

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The five member organizations that joined NNAF as plaintiffs in the suit are Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund, Gateway Women's Access Fund, Kentucky Health Justice Network, Northwest Abortion Access Fund, and Preterm Access Fund.

The suit alleges that the attackers violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and notably, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.

Known as the FACE Act, it protects individuals and clinics from the "use or threat of force and physical obstruction that injures, intimidates, or interferes with a person seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services."

Carrie Goldberg, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said there's no precedent for applying this act to a hacking case.

Related: Techies team up for abortion access

"The definition of what an entrance is, or what property is, needs to be recognized in this digital age," Goldberg, who is known for her work taking on sexual assault and sexual privacy cases, told CNN. "We're seeing all sorts of different vicious ways that abortion providers are being attacked."

In addition to obstructing access to abortion care, the suit also alleges the attackers stole identifying information and credit card information of private individuals through the hack.

They allegedly obtained access to information of donors and sent them spoofed emails.

"It tickles me to fund abortions for the lower races, such as Negroes and the Jews ... I am indebted to feminism and this new opportunity it has provided to cleanse our future generations. Keep it up, NNAF," the complaint says one of the emails read.

"We need to pull back the curtain on their activities, motivations, identities and tactics," Kotting told CNN. "We want extremists to know they cannot hide behind DDos attacks and anonymous Twitter handles."

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