Online predators target children’s webcams, study finds

There has been a tenfold increase in sexual abuse imagery created with webcams and other recording devices worldwide since 2019, according to the the Internet Watch Foundation.

Social media sites and chatrooms are the most common methods used to facilitate contact with kids, and abuse occurs both online and offline. Increasingly, predators are using advances in technology to engage in technology-facilitated sexual abuse.

Once having gained access to a child’s webcam, a predator can use it to record, produce and distribute child pornography.

We are criminologists who study cybercrime and cybersecurity. Our current research examines the methods online predators use to compromise children’s webcams. To do this, we posed online as children to observe active online predators in action.


We began by creating several automated chatbots disguised as 13-year-old girls. We deployed these chatbots as bait for online predators in various chatrooms frequently used by children to socialize. The bots never initiated conversations and were programmed to respond only to users who identified as over 18 years of age.

We programmed the bots to begin each conversation by stating their age, sex and location. This is common practice in chatroom culture and ensured the conversations logged were with adults over the age of 18 who were knowingly and willingly chatting with a minor. Though it’s possible some subjects were underage and posing as adults, previous research shows online predators usually represent themselves as younger than they actually are, not older.

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A section of dialogue between a self-identified adult and the researchers’ chatbot posing as a 13-year-old.
Eden Kamar, CC BY-ND

Most prior studies of child sexual abuse rely on historical data from police reports, which provides an outdated depiction of the tactics currently used to abuse children. In contrast, the automated chatbots we used gathered data about active offenders and the current methods they use to facilitate sexual abuse.

Methods of attack

In total, our chatbots logged 953 conversations with self-identified adults who were told they were talking with a 13-year-old girl. Nearly all the conversations were sexual in nature with an emphasis on webcams. Some predators were explicit in their desires and immediately offered payment for videos of the child performing sexual acts. Others attempted to solicit videos with promises of love and future relationships. In addition to these commonly used tactics, we found that 39% of conversations included an unsolicited link.

We conducted a forensics investigation of the links and found that 19% (71 links) were embedded with malware, 5% (18 links) led to phishing websites, and 41% (154 links) were associated with Whereby, a video conferencing platform operated by a company in Norway.

Editor’s note: The Conversation reviewed the author’s unpublished data and confirmed that 41%…

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