By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 8/23/2004 7:55:36 PM ET 2004-08-23T23:55:36

A new computer virus takes spying on victims one step farther than most worms -- the malicious program is capable of switching on webcams, allowing the author to literally peek into victims' lives. The virus, called Rbot-GR, isn't spreading much, according to antivirus firm Sophos. Still, the technique is "creepy," says spokesman Graham Cluley, and it brings digital voyeurism to new heights.

"It may become a standard part of the virus arsenal, like opening backdoors, and stealing keystrokes," he said. With more consumers signed up for always-on broadband services, webcams have become more common, Cluey said. "So why not give yourself the ability to look at people's webcams?"

The worm's name -- Rbot -- comes from the fact that it's designed to turn a remote computer into a robot that will do the virus writer's bidding. There are actually thousands of variants of the Rbot worm, experts said, with a new one appearing almost every day.

Remote control of victims' computers isn't new. The infamous hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow published a program in the late 1990s called Back Orifice which allowed hackers to perform all kinds of mischief -- including opening and closing CD-ROM drive doors and switching on webcams.

"The idea of using a malicious program to turn on a webcam is not unique," said Symantec Corp.'s Alfred Huger, a virus researcher.

But Back Orifice didn't spread by itself. That's what makes Rbot unique, Cluey said.

"A lot of people haven't really realized that this is one of the things (hackers) can do when they control your computer remotely," he said.  "It does give the impression of something a little spookier than what we're used to. You may get a scenario of a psychotic male who can use tools like this to keep up with an ex-girlfriend, for example."

Huger does think webcams are much more common today than a few years ago, when Back Orifice was a popular hacker tool -- meaning the threat from RBot, and the inevitable copycats, is serious. He thinks computer virus writers will eventually have access to a small army of webcam-controlled PCs that they use for personal amusement.

"It takes invasion of privacy to a whole new level," he said.

But Craig Schmugar, virus research manager at McAfee Inc., said consumers should really be much more worried about viruses and worms designed to capture keystrokes -- which enable virus writers to steal passwords and personal financial information -- than programs designed to flip on webcams.

"For most people, keyloggers probably pose the greater risk," he said.

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