Webcams should be covered when not in use because hackers could be using them to spy on people, a charity advises.
Childnet International says webcams should be disconnected when not in use, and teenagers should not leave webcams in bedrooms or other private areas.
A BBC Radio 5 live investigation found sites where hackers exchanged pictures and videos of people captured on their own webcams without their knowledge.
A police spokeswoman said webcam hackers would be prosecuted.Commons Home Affairs Committee chairman Keith Vaz urged teachers to talk to pupils about the dangers of using webcams, and computer manufacturers to improve security for users.
But some experts have expressed doubts about how widespread webcam hacking is and stressed that anti-virus software plays a vital role in preventing it.
The BBC Radio 5 live team found a thriving black market where access to compromised computers was bought and sold for a few pence.
Student Rachel Hyndman, 20, from Glasgow, who has a part-time job in a computer shop, believes she was the victim of webcam hacking.
She spotted the camera on her laptop had switched itself on while she was watching a DVD in the bath.She says: “I was sitting in the bath, trying to relax, and suddenly someone potentially has access to me in this incredibly private moment and it’s horrifying.
“To have it happen to you without your consent is horribly violating.”
Hackers are able to gain access to victims’ computers using a piece of malicious software (malware) called a remote-access Trojan (Rat).
Many Rats now include a function allowing a hacker to access the victim’s webcam without their knowledge.
The malware is spread in infected files or by tricking the victim – known as a “slave” or “bot” – into visiting a specific webpage.
The chief executive of Childnet International, Will Gardner, says it has anecdotal evidence of webcams being hacked, although it is rare.
“It’s difficult to say how commonplace it is, but it can happen,” he says.”The key advice is not clicking on links or opening attachments from people you don’t know.
“Pointing your webcam at a wall or covering it up can be good practice, and closing the laptop lid.”There’s a range of practical measures to make sure that if somebody did manage to infect it, they wouldn’t be able to see anything.”
A BBC Radio 5 live producer posing online as a computer security enthusiast made contact with several webcam hackers from the UK and around the world.
At least one of them has since been arrested on suspicion of cyber-offences.The investigation uncovered websites where hackers share pictures and videos of their victims.
They include pages where hackers exchange photos of “ugly” slaves, and others where men swap pictures of female slaves.
John, 16, who lives near London, estimates he has hacked 100 computers and viewed webcams on almost half of them.
He says: “I wasn’t really looking for anything on their webcams, just their reactions. I’d open up random sites – shock sites – they’d see a scary picture or someone screaming, and you’d see they were scared. There are creepy people who post pictures of ugly or female slaves. I’m not really into that.”
When challenged about invading people’s privacy, John says he did not worry about getting found out: “Yeah, it is illegal. But the risk of getting caught, that someone would do something about you trolling people, isn’t that much. It’s just a bit of a laugh.”
BBC Radio 5 live’s investigation uncovered evidence of a black market in “slaves”, where access to compromised computers is sold for small sums of money. Read the webcam safety tips below.
WEBCAM SAFETY TIPS
- Webcams can be affected by viruses so be wary of emails and social network messages from strangers
- Make sure anti-virus and firewall protection is kept up to date
- Avoid putting webcams in bedrooms or other private areas
- Unplug the webcam, cover the lens or point it at a blank wall when it is not in use
- Be sure you can trust the person you are chatting to and remember webcam footage can be recorded and potentially shared online
- If you have been the victim of inappropriate sexual contact via webcam tell a trusted adult and report it to the police via the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (Ceop)
Megan Benson, aged nine, from Devon won the prize for most prolific reader, devouring 273 books during the competition. Jack Casey, 10, from Wiltshire won the prize for the most interesting written responses to the books he read.
The most popular books in the e-library were a historical tale based on the sinking of the Titanic, a comedy version of Cinderella and a factual account of the story of chocolate. Overall comedy was the most popular category.
Children’s author Jeremy Strong said: “I’m not at all surprised to see that funny books have come out top in this brilliant reading competition. I’ve always felt strongly that adding a sense of fun to stories is the best way to turn a child into a reader so I’m delighted to hear that thousands of children across the country feel the same.”
Education minister Elizabeth Truss added: “I am delighted the competition has encouraged even the most reluctant children to pick up a book for the first time.”