19 December 2016 00:00
In the spring of 2014, the hacker collective Anonymous took credit for hitting a number of health care and treatment facilities in the Boston area in defense of a patient there named Justina Pelletier.
The answer is simpler than you might think: The defense of an innocent, learning disabled, 15-year-old girl. In the criminal complaint, she’s called “Patient A,” but to me, she has a name, Justina Pelletier. Boston Children’s Hospital disagreed with her diagnosis. They said her symptoms were psychological. They made misleading statements on an affidavit, went to court, and had Justina’s parents stripped of custody.
They stopped her painkillers, leaving her in agony. They stopped her heart medication, leaving her tachycardic. They said she was a danger to herself, and locked her in a psych ward. They said her family was part of the problem, so they limited, monitored, and censored her contact with them.
Justina resorted to sneaking notes, hidden in origami, to tell her family what she wasn’t allowed to say around eavesdroppers. Hospital staff pushed her to do things she was physically incapable of, due to the physical condition they refused to acknowledge she has. They laughed at her as she struggled futilely. They left her on a toilet for hours when she couldn’t void her bowels. They left her secluded in a bare room, or alone in the hallway, sometimes for days when she couldn’t wheel herself elsewhere.
When they did move her, they ripped her toe nails, dragging her feet on the floor. They bruised her. Her legs swelled, her gums receded, and her hair fell out. This went on for 11 months at BCH.
Her parents went to the media, and a gag order was issued specifically prohibiting them from speaking to journalists. When she finally left the hospital (in large part thanks to the negative publicity,) she still wasn’t allowed home and her ordeal wasn’t over. BCH was still in charge and her suffering continued, though the most culpable had successfully manipulated the spotlight onto others.
At her new treatment center, aptly named “Wayside,” Justina was verbally assaulted while nude in the shower. She continued to be denied her medications and treated according to the BCH plan.
Her father broke the gag order, publicly stating her life was in danger. The story made big news, but there was no indication when Justina would be returned to her family and receive the long delayed treatment she desperately needed. A former BCH nurse called what Justina was enduring its proper term: torture. According to international humanitarian law, she was right.
I had heard many, too many, such horror stories of institutionalized children who were killed or took their own lives in the so-called “troubled teen industry.” I never imagined a renowned hospital would be capable of such brutality and no amount of other good work could justify torturing Justina. She wasn’t alone either. BCH calls what it did to her a “parentectomy,” and there had been others over at least the past 20 years.
I knew that BCH’s big donation day was coming up, and that most donors give online. I felt that to have sufficient influence to save Justina from grievous bodily harm and possible death, as well as dissuade BCH from continuing its well established pattern of such harmful “parentectomies,” I’d have to hit BCH where they appear to care the most, the pocket book and reputation. All other efforts to protect Justina weren’t succeeding and time was of the essence. Almost unbelievably, they kept their donation page on the same public network as the rest of their stuff. Rookie mistake. To take it down, I’d have to knock the whole hospital off the Internet.
I also knew from my career experience as a biotech professional that no patients should be harmed if Boston Children’s was knocked offline. There’s no such thing as an outage-proof network, so hospitals have to be able to function without the Internet. It’s required by federal law, and for accreditation. The only effects would be financial and on BCH’s reputation.
The network was strong, well funded, but especially vulnerable to a specific attack. Apparently BCH was unwilling to architect around the problem. I see such laziness often in my work, and it leaves our nation vulnerable.
I had spent my career building cyber-defenses. For the first time, I was on the offensive. I coded around the clock for two weeks to perfect the attack. Small test runs were made. BCH bragged to the media that they were withstanding the onslaught and hadn’t been taken down. They had no idea what was to come.
I finished the code just in time. It ran. BCH’s donation page went down. As they were down, I was nervous. I left it running for a few hours.
Then, with some donation time still let, I issued the command to stop the attacks—the point had been made. Justina wasn’t defenseless. Under the banner of Anonymous, she and other institutionalized children could and would be protected. There have been no such egregious parentectomies published at BCH since.
In 2016, Justina’s family announced they were suing Boston Children’s. The civil claim reads like a medical horror novel.
Under U.S.-ratified human rights Conventions, there can be no justification for torture, not even war, the threat of war, or the preservation of human life. Freedom from torture is a non-derogable human right, and the U.S. is obligated to investigate, prosecute, and punish all acts of torture, no matter who perpetrated them.
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