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February 6, 2005

Hang on, Snoopy: The Rise of Web-Cam Nation

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Kevin J. Delaney wrote an interesting story for last Wednesday's Wall Street Journal about how web surfers are increasingly finding ways to view images from security cameras and other live video sources not intended for public viewing.

Why doesn't this bother me?

For the same reason that, if I were a scuba diver, I wouldn't care one whit that the F.B.I. now has my certification records.

Because there's one overriding factor that trumps all the data access and collection in the world: the human factor (by the way, also the title of a 1978 novel by Graham Greene, a superb espionage thriller).

Someone's got to sit down in a chair and spend time looking at something for it to affect you: there aren't enough people working in all the intelligence and security agencies on this planet to begin to do so in a way that should make you take pause.

So take a chill pill, relax, and the next time you see a camera staring at you, wave or smile or flash the bird: doesn't matter, 'cause no one will ever see it.

Here, I'll even help you become a looker: EarthCam.com is a website that offers entry to all manner of webcams girdling the globe.

They even have a feature that lets you watch on your cellphone - what could be better during those dreadful meetings you have to sit through every day?

Here's the Journal article.

    Intended for Security, Web Cams Become Popular Snooping Tool

    As popular Internet search engines have become more powerful and sophisticated, it has become possible to find everything from the author of an arcane research paper to the whereabouts of a high-school classmate in seconds.

    But, in an unintended twist, the technology also has made it much easier to snoop on private scenes in homes and companies.

    Web surfers increasingly are finding ways to view images from security cameras and other live video sources, some of which weren't meant for public viewing.

    The footage ranges from random kids playing in their house to shots outside a power plant.

    In some cases, Web surfers can even take control of the camera, which allows them to zoom in and out on specific things.

    The video cameras affected are what are known as network cameras, which means they can connect directly to an Internet connection without having to be plugged into the back of a computer.

    As a security tool, they have become a popular replacement for traditional closed-circuit cameras because they are cheaper to set up. Internet-connected cameras produce images that can be viewed through a Web browser.

    These images become accessible to the general public when their owners neglect to - or choose not to - take simple security measures.

    Cameras connected to the Internet generate strings of text.

    Unless protected by passwords or other mechanisms, that text can be picked up by search engines in the normal process of cataloging the Web.

    The same text then can be retrieved by a person doing a Web search.

    Though it typically requires entering seemingly nonsensical phrases such as "ViewerFrame?Mode" into a query, some sites save users that trouble, by finding open Web cams and showing a selection of images that users simply may click on and view.

    There doesn't appear to be any simple way to search for something specific - such as the home of someone in a certain neighborhood, or footage from a particular industrial site.

    Still, Web searches turn up thousands of images from both business and consumer Web cams.

    A significant portion are seemingly innocuous industrial scenes, with cameras trained on marine ports, Laundromats, aquarium scenes and pets.

    Others are owned by people explicitly looking for visitors, such as the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky.

    But other video images likely weren't meant for public consumption.

    One recent search turned up a camera displaying two young girls, apparently of grade-school age, in front of a home computer.

    Another page, potentially sensitive in a post-9/11 age, was titled "Power Plant Construction Web Camera" and allowed users to zoom the camera in and out to view an apparently completed plant, other facilities and parking lots.

    The video snooping underscores how vulnerable Internet-connected devices can be if proper security procedures aren't followed.

    It also highlights how search sites such as Google Inc. and its rivals can be used to ferret out personal information, including credit-card and Social Security numbers that Web site owners didn't properly secure.

    The snooping is easy to prevent.

    Camera owners can set up the devices to require passwords, use common firewall security software, or even limit access to computers at specific IP addresses.

    Axis Communications AB, which makes some of the devices whose footage ultimately turns up in Web searches, says its cameras require a password by default.

    But the Swedish company, whose network-connected cameras start at $200, acknowledges that the default password is the same for all of its devices and, it says, some camera owners might turn that function off without realizing the consequences.

    The company counts consumers, government offices, prisons and airports among its customers.

    Fredrik Nilsson, general manager for Axis's U.S. division, estimated that only about 500 of the some 500,000 Axis cameras in usage are accessible through Web search engines.

    "If you have 0.1% that didn't read the instructions, that's not so bad," he says.

    A spokesman for one maker of Web cams, Toshiba Corp., said it hadn't received any complaints about the issue.

    "In most cases, at least for Toshiba cameras, the Web cams are not being hacked," the spokesman said in an e-mail.

    "The users simply want and actively encourage public viewing to their video, so they don't create a password. Or, they could be novices that don't understand the importance of a password."

    Google often is used for the video searches.

    The site's breadth and popularity have spawned other sites devoted to detailing "Google hacks," or tricks for finding sensitive information.

    These range from finding individual users' online passwords to finding network-connected printers that can be targeted for gag messages.

    But similar searches can be performed on other search engines.

    "Google is a reflection of the Web. Although we aggregate and organize information published on the Web, we don't control the information itself nor do we control access to it," a Google spokesman said.

    Legal issues surrounding the use of this footage is murky.

    If a computer hacker defeated security measures to spy on people, that probably is illegal, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public-interest research group in Washington D.C.

    But if the images can be found through as public a forum as Google, it may be hard to argue that some form of electronic trespass occurred, he said.

February 6, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink


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