This content was originally published to benscomputer.no-ip.org in December 2008
There are a variety of websites available online which allow users to stream live footage of themselves, either to a specific person or indiscriminantly. The dangers of using these sites depends largely on the user.
There is a danger of users attracting unwanted attention, or of finding their webcam session more widely distributed than they expected. Users should be aware of this risk before accessing one of these sites, but it is expected that most would be mature enough to accept this risk.
One of the benefits of using an online meeting place, is that should a user be plagued by unwated attention they can easily report the issue to a moderator or simply stop using the site. However, this is reliant on users not disclosing personal details to people they do not know. There is very little benefit in leaving a site if you have given the person your home address.
An additional risk to users is largely caused by teenagers, were a minor to access an adult room and go un-noticed then users of that room could potentially find themselves prosecuted. In all likelihood this would not happen, as the authorities are likely to recognise that the minor had mis-led people about their age, or simply remained anonymous.
Whilst webcam sites do pose various risks, most should log conversations between users. This at least provides evidence should the worst happen, unfortunately this does not protect users from a risk that many would consider the most dangerous. Especially amongst the more adult sites available, a concern is that someone may be recording a webcam session for publication elsewhere. Whilst some would argue that it is a risk you take, most would agree that if you are streaming video of a personal nature, you are streaming it for that specific audience and should expect that it would not be published.
Unfortunately it does happen, as a quick google search will display. This issue affects any video streaming solution, whether it be MSN, Skype or an online site. If you are considering streaming video in any form you should be aware that it may be recorded and republished without your permission.
Whatever your personal views on the sanity of the matter, people do become addicted to these sites. For many users it is just another social group that they feel comfortable in, some may balance this with a 'real-world' social group, others may not. Whilst some may argue that these online meetings do not constitute a real friendship, for people involved in online meetings they feel real enough. Whilst it is true that you may be misled by another user in terms of who they are and what they do, this can also be true in real life.
For those who fall in love with someone online, it feels no less real than if they had met someone in a bar. Whilst this connection can be good for responsible adults, it does also mean that unwanted affection can feel no less real. Indeed, 'CyberStalkers' can be a big problem, especially if allowed to gain more personal or private details. The addition of video to this mix can also worsen a situation. Once again this is an issue experienced in the real world as well, and unfortunately comes with the territory.
Webcam sites and children, however, do not mix. Most teenagers lack the maturity to truly understand and accept the risks that I have detailed thus far. Teenagers are often easy pickings for the unscrupulous, and are likely to be more at risk than when chatting in a non-video environment. Neither is safe unless carefully moderated by a responsible adult. There should be a greater burden on site operators to ensure that children cannot access areas that are unsuitable, and to protect them in the areas that they can access. However, the true burden of protection should remain with the parents.
This article has focused mainly on the dangers of using Webcam sites and chatrooms, however I have also highlighted some of the benefits. This article has not mentioned the financial risks of paying to use a site, and addictive nature could quickly lead to debt, whilst placing trust in the wrong site could lead to identity theft. These issues lie more within the scope of other articles.
When used responsibly and maturely, these sites can be a good release for like minded adults, and a social safety net for those who would otherwise find friendship hard to come by. Not everyone that uses these sites is a deviant or socially inept, and good friendships can be forged.
Whether or not these sites are safe depends almost entirely on the persona of the user, with a few exceptions the risks are no different to e-mail conversations. There is always a risk of unwanted affection no matter which world you choose to spend your life in, the internet does provide more opportunity for this but also provides a modicum of anonymity.