2014 Miss Teen USA, Cassidy Wolf, launched a cybercrime awareness campaign after being a victim of computer hacking and extortion. A high school classmate, Jared James Abrahams, gained access to her computer’s webcam and “sextorted” her with private photos taken without her knowledge — many while she dressed/undressed in her room. “I was hysterical, scared, violated & had NO IDEA what to do,” she wrote on Facebook. “This person had control over all my accounts and was threatening to post pictures of me changing onto my social media accounts,” Wolf explained at the time. Her allegations and an ensuing investigation led to Abrahams’ arrest last year. At the conclusion of his trial, Abrahams was sentenced to 18 months in prison on charges of extortion and computer hacking. It’s estimated that he gained access to more than 150 computers over two years; after taking over his victims’ social media accounts pages, he’d hack their webcams and turn them on remotely. This is where the “sextortion” began. He would then let his victims know of one way (and only one way) they could avoid their photos being made public: sending over more naked shots. In some cases, he also asked for “performances” over Skype.1
You may be asking yourself, is this something I should be concerned about? You know who’s concerned about this? Mark Zuckerberg and most digital security professionals. Mark Zuckerberg is the owner of the largest social media company in the world. He can afford the best web safety professionals and security technology, but he puts tape over his laptop’s camera and microphone.
According to a 2013 report in tech news site Ars Technica, sites such as Hack Forums contain threads full of people comparing and trading images of “slaves”, people whose computers they have broken into and taken control of. “One woman targeted by the California ‘sextortionist’ Luis Mijangos wouldn’t leave her dorm room for a week after Mijangos turned her laptop into a sophisticated bugging device,” Ars’ Nate Anderson wrote. “Mijangos began taunting her with information gleaned from offline conversations.”2
Our pro-porn culture is driving the desire for young men, many in high school, to target their female classmates. “Live cams” are one of the most popular categories on mainstream porn sites. We have a generation of young men raised on pornography and see girls in their school as a new exciting source to feed their porn addiction. In a study published in 1992, 29% of middle school boys, the average age of fourteen-years-old, said Porn was the source that had provided them with the most useful information about sex (i.e., more than parents, school, friends,).3 This begs the question, what is porn teaching our boys? In almost all porn, women are nothing more than objects used to satisfy the sexual desires of the man. Women in the video are depicted as being happy or turned-on with whatever the man wants to do even if it’s painful or humiliating. A study of the most popular porn videos found that nine scenes out of 10 showed women being verbally or physically abused, yet the female victims almost always responded with either pleasure or appeared to be neutral.4 As a result, male porn users’ ideas of what sex or loving relationships should look like are often warped.
How to Protect Yourself from Webcam Hacking
By this time, you’ve found the answer to the question “Can someone hack my computer camera?” Unfortunately, the answer is “yes.” However, there are some ways you can do to keep hackers from spying on you or your children.5 Here are some of the preventive measures you can take:
- If you’re not using your camera, disable it or cover it. I give away free camera shields at all of my talks. Check out Kamshields.
- Make sure that your firewall is activated and that your anti-virus/anti-malware tool is updated.
- Always update your operating system, software, drivers, and browser.
- Use your camera only over a secure Internet connection.
- Don’t simply rely on fingerprint locks for webcam security. Make sure you’re using a strong password.
- Do not open email attachments or links unless you are absolutely expecting them.
- Do not entertain unsolicited calls from telemarketers. There is a rash of phishing calls where the caller says he is calling from Microsoft’s cybersecurity center alerting you that you have been hacked. Just hang up.
- Do not disclose any personal details to strangers online.
Learn to protect yourself from hacking, phishing, predators, cyberbullying and much more in the definitive guide to online safety for families, Parenting in the Digital World.