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Science. Communication. Community.

How Miss Teen USA reminds us of the importance of sci-tech communication

A recent cyber-security breach for Miss Teen USA 2013 led to a blackmail plot, an FBI investigation, and some personal reflection on the importance of communicating science and technology news, even for niche topics.

By: Ian Campbell

Cassidy Wolf, Miss Teen USA 2013, was victim of a cyber-extortion plot

Cassidy Wolf, Miss Teen USA 2013, was victim of a cyber-extortion plot. Image credit: Glenn Francis

In a rare crossover between the Miss Teen USA pageant and technology news, Cassidy Wolf, the 2013 pageant winner from California, revealed last week that she was the victim of a cyber-spying technique called RATing.

Remote Administration Tools (RATs) give their operators complete control over a computer from a command center connected to the internet. Complete control is no joke. A RAT can be used to access and copy files, photos, and emails, view the current contents of the screen and keyboard input, launch new programs including viruses, and even open and close the optical disk drive. Perhaps more frightening is the ability to turn on the webcam and microphone surreptitiously, meaning the attacker can access not only the details of our virtual existence inside the computer but also video and audio of the rooms in which we live.

In Ms. Wolf’s case, the webcam was the key to her troubles. A RAT operator allegedly captured nude photos of her by secretly activating her webcam, then tried to blackmail her by threatening to release the photos publicly. Ms. Wolf instead elected to report the incident to the FBI and has since been discussing the importance of cyber-security with teens.

When I first heard about Ms. Wolf’s incident, my initial reaction was to roll my eyes, and not just because I was reading news about Miss Teen USA. Media coverage of RATs is nothing new—Nate Anderson wrote a fascinating feature on the topic for Ars Technica back in March, and David Kushner covered RATs in GQ magazine in 2012.

However, I only know about RATs because cyber-security is a personal niche interest of mine. I follow news on the methods and consequences of intrusion technology to satisfy my own curiosity, but like any hobby, not everybody shares my level of interest in the topic.

We all progress through life in pursuit of our own individual interests, and Ms. Wolf’s blackmailing reminds us that what we know can matter. These scares emphasize just how important it is to communicate with each other about science and technology — even if only as laymen and hobbyists. Cyber-security news may be a little arcane for the leisure reading of the masses, but the serious consequences evident in Ms. Wolf’s case show how important it is for each of us to take that arcane bit of science that we love and bring it into the spotlight.

That being said, you can reduce your risk of a RAT attack by following a few best practices. Remember to install security updates in a timely manner, and routinely run anti-virus scans on your computer. Use long (at least 9 characters) and unpredictable passwords (no words from the dictionary, mix in capitals, numbers, and punctuation, and don’t just place them at the beginning or end), and don’t reuse passwords on identity-critical sites like your bank or Facebook. Use two-factor authentication to further guard access on sites like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Paypal, Dropbox, and WordPress.

Perhaps most importantly, never run executable programs on your computer unless you’re 100% certain you know the contents. Be wary even if you know the sender of a file; anyone can get a virus, and a trusted individual can be impersonated for malicious purposes if their own computer or account is compromised.

Ironically, as cyber-attack software becomes more sophisticated (some can now even disable the light on the camera), sometimes the best defense is a physical solution. To be completely certain someone isn’t watching you from your webcam, consider placing a piece of tape over the lens when not in use. I think Miss Teen USA would agree.

As infrastructure technology ranging from electricity generation to home door locks become network-connected, the possibility for serious consequences from a security breach become more important, as does the need to communicate with each other about our ever changing world.

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This entry was posted on August 20, 2013 by in Science Journalism, Uncategorized and tagged , , .
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