Research Reveals Tenfold Increase in Online Predators Targeting Children via Webcam Technology

Category Technology

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Recently conducted research demonstrates that there has been a dramatic tenfold increase in the amount of sexual abuse imagery created with webcams since 2019. Cybercriminologists posed as children in chatrooms where adults attempted to lure them into sending videos. Many links sent contained possibilities of malware and phishing websites, with 41% leading to a Norwegian video conferencing platform--Whereby. It is urgent that parents and children are aware of the dangers that come with webcam technology.

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There has been a tenfold increase in sexual abuse imagery created with webcams and other recording devices worldwide since 2019, according to the the Internet Watch Foundation.Social media sites and chatrooms are the most common methods used to facilitate contact with kids, and abuse occurs both online and offline. Increasingly, predators are using advances in technology to engage in technology-facilitated sexual abuse.

A study of online predators from 2020 showed that the majority of those who pose as minors online are actually adults.

Once having gained access to a child's webcam, a predator can use it to record, produce and distribute child pornography.

We are criminologists who study cybercrime and cybersecurity. Our current research examines the methods online predators use to compromise children's webcams. To do this, we posed online as children to observe active online predators in action. The results of our latest research are published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Malware can be used to give a predator access to webcam footage from a victim's device.

--- Chatbots --- .

We began by creating several automated chatbots disguised as 13-year-old girls. We deployed these chatbots as bait for online predators in various chatrooms frequently used by children to socialize. The bots never initiated conversations and were programmed to respond only to users who identified as over 18 years of age.

We programmed the bots to begin each conversation by stating their age, sex and location. This is common practice in chatroom culture and ensured the conversations logged were with adults over the age of 18 who were knowingly and willingly chatting with a minor. 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.

Phishing websites, which often masquerade as legitimate, throw out malicious links to access computers of unsuspecting users.

Most prior studies of child sexual abuse rely on historical data from police reports, which provides an outdated depiction of the tactics currently used to abuse children. In contrast, the automated chatbots we used gathered data about active offenders and the current methods they use to facilitate sexual abuse.

--- Methods of attack --- .

In total, our chatbots logged 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. Some predators were explicit in their desires and immediately offered payment for videos of the child performing sexual acts. Others attempted to solicit videos with promises of love and future relationships. In addition to these commonly used tactics, we found that 39% of conversations included an unsolicited link.

Criminals have been known to use webcam footage of victims to create child sexual abuse imagery.

We conducted a forensics investigation of the links and found that 19% (71 links) were embedded with malware, 5% (18 links) led to phishing websites, and 41% (154 links) were associated with Whereby, a video conferencing platform operated by a company in Norway.

(Editor's note: The Conversation reviewed the author's unpublished data and confirmed that 41% of the links in the chatbot dialogs were to Whereby video meetings, and that a sample of the dialogs with the Whereby links showed subjects attempting to entice what they were told were 13-year-old girls to engage in inappropriate behavior.) .

The International Watch Foundation estimates that at least 20% of online child sexual abuse imagery is produced and distributed via online platforms.

It was immediately obvious to us how some of these links could help a predator victimize a child. Online predators use malware to compromise a child's computer system and gai access to their webcam. On the other hand, a link to a Whereby video conference requires both parties to provide consent to enter the video call, making it a less likely risk in our opinion.

Our findings suggest that online predators have increasingly shifted their methods from unsuspecting young adults to children. As our society continues to advance technologically, predators are able to exploit new technologies to further exploit vulnerable individuals. It is imperative that policy makers, law enforcement agencies, and non-profits place an emphasis on preventing such abuse, as the situation is likely to worsen in the coming years. We strongly recommend that parents and kids be aware of the risks associated with webcam technology and take all the necessary safety precautions. We must work together to create a world free of digital predators.

Those aged 13 to 17 are the most likely age group to be targeted by online predators.

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