(TND) — Online predators can take control of your child’s webcam, cybercrime experts are warning.
And they say predators can then use that webcam access to record, produce and distribute child pornography.
C. Jordan Howell, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, and his colleague, Eden Kamar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, conducted an experiment to gather real-time information on how predators engage in online grooming.
They created automated chatbots disguised as 13-year-old girls and deployed them in a couple of dozen chat rooms used by children.
“We never initiated the conversation,” Howell said. “That’s extremely important.”
Over the course of a couple of years, their chatbots carried out over 900 conversations with self-identified adults who were told they were talking with a 13-year-old girl.
“We never said anything sexual in nature, yet all of the conversations became sexual extremely quickly,” Howell said.
The people on the other end asked for pictures and sought to engage in various sexual acts.
The “girls” also started receiving a lot of unsolicited links.
That’s where the webcams come into play.
They conducted a forensics investigation of the links and found that about 20% of them were embedded with malware, 5% led to phishing websites and over 40% went to a video conferencing platform called Whereby.
Howell said all three could then be used by the predator as a way to gain remote access to a child’s webcam.
“They’ll try to essentially trick the kid into going to this link, exploiting the fact that they’re young, they’re unaware, they don’t know how these links can lead to further exploitation,” he said.
They discovered that a feature in Whereby could be exploited, allowing someone to remotely control a webcam, according to Howell.
“We were able to within a couple minutes embed code in a room that we were using for testing purposes only that would automatically turn on your camera every 15 seconds, even if you would turn it off,” he described.
Whereby told The National Desk that the researchers’ assertion, first published in The Conversation, is inaccurate “and represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how–and by whom– Whereby’s altogether different products can be used.”
“Whereby takes our customers’ and users’ privacy and safety seriously,” Whereby executive Andy Tyra said in an email. “This commitment is core to how we do business, and it is central to our products and services.”
Whereby’s statement can be seen in full at the end of this story.
Howell said girls in their early teens are most at risk for “technology-facilitated sexual abuse.”
Young boys are at risk, as well. But Howell said the prevalence of that is being debated, because young boys appear less likely to report such abuse, perhaps out of embarrassment or other social factors.
Howell said he wasn’t permitted to name the chat rooms they used in their test, but he said they didn’t involve the big social media platforms.
Should children have computers in their rooms?
“I wouldn’t allow my kid to have a computer in their room, and I would certainly have privacy restrictions set up that disallow access to the webcam at all times,” Howell said.
But, for starters, they recommended covering your child’s webcam.
And they urge parents to monitor their child’s internet activity.
“I was horrified, right, as anyone would be to find so many people were so willing to engage with a 13-year-old girl in conversations at all, let alone sexual conversation,” Howell said. “So, it was terrifying. It was disgusting. It shows the worst of humanity.”
FULL STATEMENT PROVIDED BY WHEREBY