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Researchers Find Privacy Flaws in Chatroulette

Perhaps there is finally something to deter Chatroulette.com users from their more offensive behavior: University researchers say that users of the popular video-chat site may not be as anonymous, or as private, as they think.

In a paper posted online this week, researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder and McGill University outline three different types of attacks that could be launched against Chatroulette users.

Founded just last year by 17-year-old Russian entrepreneur Andrey Ternovskiy, Chatroulette links Web surfers randomly into one-on-one video chat conversations. The site has come under fire, however, because of nudity and inappropriate behavior.

The new research doesn't expose any gaping privacy holes, but it does show how the service could be misused by determined criminals. For example, researchers describe a type of video phishing attack, where the criminals would simply play a video of an attractive woman who appears to be chatting with the victim, with audio disabled.

In a test, they were able to trick users into thinking they were actually chatting with a prerecorded video of a cute woman. They did this by making the video choppy, as if it came from a low-bandwidth network and using text-based chat, instead of audio chat. Only one of the 15 users who chatted with the video asked the researchers to prove that it was of a real, live person. Otherwise, the researchers were regularly able to get people to chat for an hour using this technique.

The novelty and apparent intimacy of a chat session could make it easier to con people into friending scammers on Facebook or even visiting malicious Web sites, said Richard Han, an associate professor with the University of Colorado who co-authored the paper. "If you can present an attractive persona there," he said, "people start to trust the person on the other side and they lower their guard and they start to reveal information about themselves."

They also found a way to make Chatroulette's anonymous chats much less anonymous.

Because Chatroulette's back-end system shares user IP addresses, researchers were able to use IP-mapping services to get a general idea of user's location (a public Web site, called Chatroulettemap.com already does this). Then by searching Facebook using information obtained in chats and comparing pictures, researchers were able to identify chatters.

"Even in a city as big as Chicago, you can drill down and find the person you're actually talking to," Han said.

Privacy takes a hit too, in the paper.

Han and his team also believe that it would be easy to listen in on chat conversations by writing a simple computer program that could act as a middleman between Chatroulette conversations, connecting two users and recording what they say. Though Han believes it would be easy to do, his team didn't write the software to conduct this attack. "We did not implement this attack because we thought it was so dangerous," he said.

Chatroulette's Ternovskiy sees things a little differently, however. In an e-mail interview he described the research as "not a big deal."

"I think it's an interesting piece of work, and I am thankful to the people who made it," he said. "However, I think that it would be exaggeration of some sort to look at it too seriously."

"You should be aware -- don't trust strangers. But it shouldn't stop you from entertaining yourself," he added.

Han's team notified Chatroulette of its findings prior to going public, and Ternovskiy said that he would be making some changes to the site "so some things mentioned in the article wouldn't be possible to accomplish."

For example, Chatroulette is now testing a new feature called Localroulette, which connects people from specific cities with one another. "Phishing techniques usually involving tricking people into thinking that you are from particular place and you have particular identity," Ternovskiy said. "This will not exactly work here."

Robert McMillan covers computer security and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Robert on Twitter at @bobmcmillan. Robert's e-mail address is robert_mcmillan@idg.com

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