Humor me while I put my local newscaster voice on for a second: “Are perverts taking over your webcam and using it to spy on you? It’s easier than you think!”
I’m only half joking. I don’t know if they spy on you personally, but it is fairly easy for someone to take over your webcam, whether it’s law enforcement or someone shadier.
That’s what 2013’s Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf and several other victims learned this year. In the so-called “sextortion” case. Wolf and a number of other women worldwide were spied on without their knowledge, and the perpetrator captured compromising images. He contacted them via stolen email accounts, according to the FBI, then used the threat of publicizing these images to try to extract favors from the victims. The details were revealed by the FBI in late September.
Wolf’s tale started when she received a message from a stranger who threatened to distribute nude pictures of her “all over the Internet…and your dream of being a model will be transformed into a pornstar.” Multiple nude photos were attached to the email for emphasis.
The culprit listed three ways to stop the spread of these images: Send better quality photos, send a video, or engage in a chat over Skype and follow all the stranger’s commands for five minutes. Instead, Wolf sought help from the FBI.
The alleged perpetrator doesn’t appear to be a criminal mastermind—the accused is Jared James Abrahams, a 19-year-old computer science student from Temecula, California and a former high school classmate of Wolf’s. The FBI tracked him down in June and searched his family’s home. Abrahams was then arrested by the FBI on September 26th on federal extortion charges.
According to a federal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Orange County, California, Abrahams—among other admissions during an interview with FBI agents—acknowledged that he’d infected his victims’ computers with malware, watched them in states of undress, and used photographs as extortion.
Abrahams apparently also gained unauthorized access to the accounts of multiple victims in southern California and Maryland, as well as in countries believed to include Ireland, Canada, Russia, and Moldova.
Abrahams faces up to two years in prison.
How it worked
The FBI found evidence of DarkComet, a remote administration tool (RAT), on Wolf’s computer. This software, along with one other RAT, is apparently how the perpetrator managed to take control of Wolf’s webcam without her knowledge—along with those of the other victims.
In criminal hands, DarkComet can easily be manipulated as malware (though its creator still touts its uses as a legitimate tool). At some point, the victims in the Wolfe case were tricked into installing the software. From then on, their computers were fully accessible.
Abrahams told the FBI he visited the RAT community at hackforums.net and learned his skills under the pseudonym “cutefuzzypuppy.” In his posts, Abrahams solicited advice for infecting other computers and freely admitted he was not good at “social engineering.”
“It’s weird for me to be able to put a face to the person who did this to me and to know that it was somebody that I went to high school with, that’s just—it’s weird,” Wolf told NBC’s The Today Show.
“He was young, my age,” Wolf said, “and I just think it’s sad he chose to do this and now has kind of put himself in this dilemma.”
Since more and more people use laptops and tablets with built-in webcams, this problem will only persist. How do you protect yourself from prying eyes?
To be honest, the first line of defense is prevention. Live by age-old advice from the dawn of the Internet: Don’t click on risky attachments or ads. I promise you were not the hundredth visitor, and you did not win that iPad.
If a program asks for permission to install and you don’t recognize it, reconsider whether you should click that “Accept” button. Google the name of the installer and see if anyone posted any: “Warning! This is malware!” topics in forums. Only allow programs you trust on your computer.
Keep your computer clean with regular virus and malware scans from fully updated software. The hope is you’ll never encounter a virus, but if you do, you might as well catch it early.
The FBI believes Abrahams infected Wolf’s computer way back in May 2012, and she didn’t know until March 2013, when he began his extortion attempts. That’s ten whole months that her computer was compromised, though a scan with Malwarebytes or similar software would’ve detected and removed the program much earlier.
Your best bet to prevent webcam spies is surprisingly low-tech: just nullify the webcam physically.
The easiest protection is never to bring your webcam into sensitive places—say, the bedroom or bathroom. Leave it in rooms where—even if somebody spied on you—they wouldn’t find anything of interest.
You can also close your laptop’s lid at night so it can’t see anything. If you’re on a desktop, just disconnect the camera from its USB slot.
If you’re really worried, cover up the lens with a piece of tape or a sticker. If you’d like a temporary solution, the Electronic Frontier Foundation recommends Post-it Notes. Sometimes the best solution is the simplest.