Security Researchers: Online Predators Target Children’s Webcams

schoolkids using smartphones

A study by the Internet Watch Foundation found that online predators are targeting children’s webcams, and that since 2019, there has been a tenfold increase in sexual abuse imagery created via webcams and other recording devices worldwide.

Once a predator gains access to a child’s webcam, they can use it to record, produce, and distribute child pornography, and perverts using this type of technology to engage in sexual abuse of children is on the rise, according to a report by Tech Xplore.

Participant hold their laptops in front of an illuminated wall at the annual Chaos Computer Club (CCC) computer hackers' congress, called 29C3, on December 28, 2012 in Hamburg, Germany. The 29th Chaos Communication Congress (29C3) attracts hundreds of participants worldwide annually to engage in workshops and lectures discussing the role of technology in society and its future. (Photo by Patrick Lux/Getty Images)

 (Photo by Patrick Lux/Getty Images)

The report explained that its criminologists have been researching the methods predators use to compromise children’s webcams. To do this, they posed as children by creating several automated chatbots that appeared to be 13-year-old girls.

“We deployed these chatbots as bait for online predators in various chatrooms frequently used by children to socialize,” the researchers explained, adding that they programed the bots to disclose their age, sex, and location.

“Though it’s possible some subjects were underage and posing as adults, previous research shows online predators usually represent themselves as younger than they actually are, not older,” they noted.

The researchers’ chatbots ended up logging a total of 953 conversations with self-identified adults who were told they were talking with a 13-year-old girl.

“Nearly all the conversations were sexual in nature with an emphasis on webcams,” they said. “Some predators were explicit in their desires and immediately offered payment for videos of the child performing sexual acts.”

Additionally, 39 percent of the conversations included an unsolicited link for the minor to click on. An investigation into the links found that five percent of them led to phishing websites, 19 percent were embedded with malware, and 41 percent were associated with Whereby, a Norwegian video conferencing platform.

The report noted that Whereby is favored among online predators, because they are able to exploit the platform’s functions, allowing them to gain access to a child’s webcam and watch and record the minors without their consent.

Moreover, the pervert doesn’t need to be technically savvy or socially manipulative in order to obtain access to a child’s webcam, the researchers noted.

The researchers added that predators can also use Whereby to control a child’s webcam by embedding a livestream of the video on any website they wish. They can even embed code that allows them to turn on someone else’s camera without their knowledge.

While there are icons that inform a user when their camera and microphone are on, a child might not be aware of what the symbols mean, and therefore, would have no idea that someone else is controlling their camera and microphone, the report added.

A spokesperson for Whereby, as well as a lawyer for the company, disputed the researchers’ claims.

“Whereby and our users cannot access a user’s camera or microphone without receiving clear permission from the user to do so via their browser permissions,” Whereby spokesperson Victor Alexandru Truică said, adding that users can see when the camera is on and can “close, revoke, or ‘turn off’ that permission at any time.”

A lawyer for the company said “Whereby takes the privacy and safety of its customers seriously. This commitment is core to how we do business, and it is central to our products and services.”

The report recommended that parents “monitor your child’s internet activity,” teach them “stranger danger,” and “always cover your child’s webcam” in order to help keep them safe from online predators.

You can follow Alana Mastrangelo on Facebook and Twitter at @ARmastrangelo, and on Instagram.


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