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Webcams: Who’s Watching Whom?

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The "future" is often defined by our technology. Only a few decades ago, I remember reading about "picture phones" that would allow us to see the person we were speaking with. Now, with the help of the Internet and computers, that vision is reality… although the craze hasn’t caught on to the point where every phone has a camera. That’s likely a good thing, considering how often my phone is ringing when I exit the shower…

“With so many things in our lives to be "fearful" about, I regret having to add webcams.”

But while phones haven't come with cameras as standard equipment, many families have put "webcams" -- the generic name for the little camera that may be attached to your computer -- to good use by allowing them to connect with relatives and friends on the other side of the continent with virtually no connection costs. In our office, we have used them to hold business meetings. In other applications, they are allowing people in remote areas to have better health care, provide traffic information to commuters, or simply give us a chance to peer into other parts of the world (for instance, check what's new at the San Diego Zoo [http://www.sandiegozoo.org/videos/index.html]).

Now, some computers even come with cameras built in, opening a new era where a camera will become as commonplace as a mouse on a computer.

Unfortunately, like every other new technological innovation, there are downsides to the happy marriage of cameras and computers -- especially where your children are concerned. Any computer with a camera has the potential to be a privacy risk, and this is especially concerning when it involves a young person.

Many experts have suggested it is a bad idea to have computers in children's bedrooms. Potential interference with sleep habits and the inability to monitor what the child is doing are both primary reasons. Add a camera to the mix, and you have yet another concern. Webcams can become an additional component in online chatting, and can add greater privacy risks.

The first issue is the obvious ability for the other party to know what your child looks like. An adult predator may entice a child to enter a conversation with their camera. The predator likely won't have a camera, but may still convince your child to send their video image. This could allow him to identify your child at school or some other location. Or he may use the images to blackmail your child into participating in sexual exploits or person-to-person meetings.

Even more concerning, cameras can be directly involved in online sexual activity. Even if this is occurring between two "consenting" young people, the images can be recorded to the hard discs of either connecting computer. There have already been cases in which young people are participating in a consenting relationship, and then a breakup occurs. In an act of revenge, one of the individuals will upload the video images of the other party to one of many Internet sites that circulate such filth. Once the pictures are on the Internet, it is truly impossible to ever have them removed. Explicit sexual materials circulate like wildfire, and your child's images -- no matter how illegal -- will become part of the Internet landscape.

Another issue is the computer virus. Some of these stealth programs allowoutside parties to take control of certainaspects of your computer. If you have a video camera plugged in and ready to go, it is possible for a virus to "hijack" the camera's output, and send it to another computer. Sound unlikely? Check this news item to find out about a computer programmer from Madrid who did just that. Of the viruses he has been accused of launching, one includes theability to "see" through other people's webcams. When Spanish police arrested him, they found "hundreds of photographs and recordings" and speculated the accused may have had access to "thousands of computers worldwide." [http://news.com.com/Webcam+virus+writer+arrested+in+Spain/2100-7348_3-5541974.html]

(Interestingly, he disguised the virus as a music or picture file and distributed it through peer-to-peer file sharing services. Check this earlier article I wrote about the dangers of letting your children use these tools: [http://www.parentstv.org/PTC/publications/rgcolumns/2003/0822.asp])

With so many things in our lives to be "fearful" about, I regret having to add webcams to the list. But before you toss away these wonderful technological marvels, consider a few easy steps to keep them under control:

• Use a good virus protection program, and keep it up to date.

• Purchase a hardware router. These little devices make it more difficult for outsiders to connect into your computer, and most include a firewall that is far more effective at blocking intruders than the firewall included in your computer's operating system. Unfortunately, firewalls and routers may make using your webcam a little more difficult, but most webcam software has instructions and settings to work with your router.

• Unplug the USB or Firewire cable that leads from your webcam to the computer when it isn't in use (assuming your camera is not built into your computer, as it is on some notebooks and Apple products). Or (if possible) turn your computer off when you're not using it. (This will save you a few dimes on your electric bill, too.)

• Don't allow webcams in bedrooms. Keep them in public areas of your home.

• Don't allow your children (or adults) to use peer-to-peer programs to obtain music, videos or pictures. Aside from concerns regarding pornographyand copyright infringement, the files obtained may contain viruses and spyware.

I used to chuckle when one of our writers, who we used to work with from a distance, would turn her camera toward the wall behind the computer when she wasn't using it. Now that seems to be a good first step toward responsible camera use.

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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