An upcoming report by academics reveals pedophiles have found a new way to prey on kids online.
Researchers have found in an experiment that a stunning number of cyber predators tried to lure “kids” — actually, chatbots posing as young girls — to the video conferencing platform Whereby.
Eden Kamar — a PhD candidate in cybersecurity at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem — and Dr. C. Jordan Howell, a cybercrime expert at the University of South Florida, teamed up to expose the many ways in which pedophiles target young children in the US.
“Before the internet, we would regard the production of child pornography as being in the same room with the minor and using professional cameras. Nowadays, predators can produce child pornography from the comfort of their homes, using advanced technological tools, such as webcams, screen recording programs and screenshots,” Kamar explained.
Howell told The Post that the duo wanted to identify how sexual predators first initiate conversations with children in chatrooms, then, after building some level of trust, use cunning methods to access a child’s webcam and record child pornography. The research was carried out between October 2021 and May 2022.
They began by creating several automated chatbots that never initiated a conversation and were programmed to only respond to users who identified as 18 years of age and above.
The chatbots engaged in nearly 1,000 conversations with potential pedophiles in 30 randomly selected chatrooms aimed at teens. Thirty-eight percent of online predators then sent unsolicited links, Howell said.
In text chats seen by The Post, the bots responded to initial greetings from predators by asking for “a/s/l” — age, sex, location — and after the bot claimed to be a 13- or 14-year-old female, the predators came back with a video link.
A staggering 41% of links directed to Whereby, a Zoom competitor that provides video and audio conferencing. The Norwegian company was established a decade ago, according to its website, and has been used by companies like Spotify and Netflix.
In navigating the company’s website, Howell said, the researchers found that Whereby allows users to control other participants’ webcams without their consent.
Whereby did not respond to requests for comment for this story or for the upcoming report, which will be published on TheConversation.com.
Kamar told The Post that “online predators compromise and exploit the video conferencing platform to control the child’s computer without their knowledge or consent.
“Once the predator has access to the child’s camera they use it to record and livestream child pornography,” she added.
“In some cases, the predator will simply spy until he gets videos of the child changing [clothes] or, depending on age, performing sexual acts,” Howell said. In other cases, “the predator will ask or blackmail the child into performing sexual acts on camera.”
With access to the child’s camera, someone can also record them without their knowledge. “In other words,” Howell said, “multiple sexual predators can simultaneously watch live webcam footage of a child who does not know she is being watched or recorded” — an exploit the researcher called “sick.”
Since 2019, according to a recent report by the Internet Watchdog Foundation (IWF), online sexual abuse of children has increased by a whopping 1,000%. In the US, one in six children will experience some form of online sexual abuse before the age of 18.
Kamar and Howell also found that predators sent the chatbots other links. “I have a background in digital forensics, so my first thought was to analyze the websites for malware,” Howell said.
While 19% of the links were embedded with malicious code, another 5% led to known phishing sites. Malware sites can be used to infect a child’s computer to gain remote access, whereas phishing sites are used to gather personal information — including home addresses.
Phishing attacks can also give a predator access to the password to a child’s computer, which can be used to access and remotely control a camera.
Howell said that he and Kamar conducted this research to raise an alarm.
However, he stressed, “we need the help of parents and tech companies.” Parents “must do a better job monitoring their kids’ online activity,” Howell added, but so must tech companies that often prioritize user privacy. “If they care about kids’ safety, they will make it harder for predators to victimize an already vulnerable population.”