I am tempted to weep, truly I am. I normally have a lot of time for Radio 5 Live; they do some good stuff, but this time they've really lost the plot. To give you a bit of background, there are resources called Remote Access Tools, or RAT for short. These are installed on a computer, with the other 'half' on another computer, allowing one person one their computer to control the other one. It helps with sorting out technical issues and problems - very helpful tools they are too.
As with anything, there's a dark side of course. If you inadvertently install this software, someone else can take control of your computer and do pretty much whatever they want to - play around in your files, turn on your webcam, log onto games as 'you' and so on. This has been going on for YEARS. Really - YEARS. This is not some new phenomenon, but apparently according to Radio 5 live it suddenly is, because they've done their 'investigative journalism' and realised what's going on. Childnet International launches in on the act according to this BBC news report, except that they really haven't, since the story isn't important enough to appear on their website and makes a fleeting appearance on their website. While I'm mentioning the "Webcams taken over by hackers, charity warns" report, could they at least get some stuff right? It's poor even by the inept standards of the BBC; they can't even get the name of these resources correct, but I suppose 'Trojan' sounds so much more exciting than 'Tool' doesn't it.
I shouldn't laugh - but they interviewed a woman who complained that her webcam turned on while she was in her bath. Yeah - she was watching a DVD, on her laptop, in her bath. How many levels of stupid does that take? She's got a lot more to worry about than some pervert peering at her - staying alive is clearly going to take a lot of her limited brainpower.
The advice, we're told, is to unplug our webcams. Well that's just fine and dandy if you're using one that can be unplugged, but less use when it's on your laptop. The CEO of Childnet International comes to the rescue though, and Will Gardner advises us "Pointing your webcam at a wall or covering it up can be good practice, and closing the laptop lid." Really? So once we've closed the laptop lid, we're supposed to use the laptop... how? The report goes on to interview various other 'experts' who whitter on about increasing your security by upping your anti virus software. A RAT is NOT a virus. It's a tool. That's why they're called Tools. You can have the most superdooper anti virus software in the world on your machine, but if you've chosen to run a piece of software there's not that much they can do about it. I will give a hat tip to Will Gardner for one piece of advice though; "The key advice is not clicking on links or opening attachments from people you don't know."
This gets us closer to the nub of the issue. This stuff doesn't appear on your computer by magic - the RAT fairies don't arrive one evening and sprinkle virus dust on your computer. People choose to click and open links from people that they don't know - in emails, on bulletin boards, in gaming forums and so on. I see it said so often 'Oh, I was hacked'. No you weren't hacked - you were stupid. Your computer is not a toy. It's a very complex piece of hardware, backed up by even more complicated software, and while I don't think we should be expected to know all the ins and outs of how they work, a bare minimum level of intelligence should be used when you turn it on. At least if someone accesses your webcam there should be a little light that pops on, warning you of some activity. Apparently though, this isn't enough for some people - do they not think 'Oh, not seen that before, bit odd, let's investigate that'. It's not hard - you go to a search engine and you type in webcam light came on and the majority of results that come up on the first page all indicate that you might have a problem of some sort. Now, I'll freely grant that it's perfectly possible to inject code into a forum for example - and even if you just visit that webpage, and don't click on any links at all, your computer can download malicious content, allowing someone else to control your machine. The BBC have done a useful quick video on this, which is worth watching, but the point is also made that it only works because the machine hasn't been updated to new versions of Java, and it's still running an older version which is susceptible. There's been plenty in the news about disabling Java, or, if you really have to have it (and most of us don't), updating it.
No, I'm not finished ranting yet. The Radio 5 live interview gets even better. They interviewed Keith Vaz who chairs a Home Office Committee on E-Crime. Now, you'd think that someone who was involved in that - which includes holding seminars, and can ask senior police officers questions about E-Crime would be up to speed on this, wouldn't you? Well no, me neither, but this idiot (and I use the word advisedly) starts blethering on about how dreadful it is. He admits to having NO IDEA about this, and says that he's not discussed it with the police - which since he doesn't know about it makes sense. But - WHY doesn't he know about it? It's supposed to be his job isn't it? That's one of the things that he's paid to do? You know, be professional, knowledgeable and up to date.
So, to use the language of the day 'What lessons can we learn from this?' Keep your computer up to date, with the latest software. Don't click on links from people that you don't know. Keep an eye on the little webcam light, and if it, or your computer does things you weren't expecting, investigate them. But also, don't get paranoid - yes, this stuff does happen. So does people getting run over by buses, but we don't stay in the house because it might happen to us - take sensible steps to keep yourself safe.
Oh yes - and don't use a laptop while you're in the bath.