Hackers last week attacked Discord online groups used by students, instructors and alumni at UC Irvine, posting gory videos of human and animal mutilation that reportedly sent some viewers to the hospital and caused a lot of “vomiting and tears.”
About 3,000 users were exposed to the disturbing images in the cyber attack before hackers were blocked by student managers of the Discord groups at the university.
“Some things I’ve seen I definitely cannot unsee,” said Alina Kim, a coordinator for UC Irvine’s student-run online community who helped manage the response. “Some individuals were reportedly hospitalized with vomiting, panic attacks, traumatic responses. This is something that has real psychological effects.”
Kim said the hackers have been identified, but their identity is being withheld because they appear to seek publicity. She said the attackers demanded $1,000 in ransom to keep them from posting the videos for another month, but the amount is so low she considered it a joke.
Kim said she is contacting federal authorities because of the nature of the violent videos and the ransom demand. Campus police also are investigating.
Discord is an online instant messaging social platform using voice calls, video calls and text messaging, among other things. Communication can be private or in groups. Besides being used for social purposes, students and faculty often depend on the groups to communicate about course work. UC Irvine, does not manage the Discord groups or the people who use them, said spokesman Tom Vasich.
“However, we take seriously our commitment to protecting members of our community,” Vasich said via email. “The university offers information security training and resources, and encourages members of the community to engage in cyber hygiene best practices, including the use of strong passwords and awareness of phishing attacks meant to harvest confidential credentials.”
The university also offers mental health counseling for victims of what students are calling the “gore raid” on campus Discord groups.
Kim said hackers began flooding the larger UC Irvine-affiliated Discord channels with “very disturbing gore” at 9 p.m. Jan. 9. She and others were able to quickly track down the perpetrators, who bragged online about hitting another West Coast university in October.
In all, the hackers breached about 30 of the 500 Discord groups at UC Irvine, where the attackers were shut down in four days. Affected schools included mathematics, computer science and biological engineering.
The perpetrators apparently got in through the groups’ “open access” feature. Kim said all that was needed was an invite or a verified school email or phone account.
Some groups were taken completely offline as a precaution and some were rebuilt, but a lot of important communications were lost, she said. Students rely on these sites to do coursework and to keep informed on their studies.
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When the cyber attack hit, Kim reached out to leaders of UC Irvine’s other large online communities and created a private Discord group to coordinate their efforts. They shared the user IDs of the attackers, so they could individually ban them from their groups.
Within 24 hours, Vietbao Tran, a biomedical engineering student, developed a Discord bot that would allow the group to automatically ban the hackers across all of the groups, Kim said.
Kim and her group ultimately broke into the hackers’ Discord group and used a program to quickly grab the user IDs of everyone involved in the attack. The UC Irvine group used its bot to automatically ban all 400 of the affiliated users.