July 13, 2010, 9:16 PM — Perhaps there is finally something to deter Chatroulette.com users from their more offensive behavior: University researchers say that users of the popular video-chat site may not be as anonymous, or as private, as they think.
In a paper posted online this week, researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder and McGill University outline three different types of attacks that could be launched against Chatroulette users.
Founded just last year by 17-year-old Russian entrepreneur Andrey Ternovskiy, Chatroulette links Web surfers randomly into one-on-one video chat conversations. The site has come under fire, however, because of nudity and inappropriate behavior.
The new research doesn't expose any gaping privacy holes, but it does show how the service could be misused by determined criminals. For example, researchers describe a type of video phishing attack, where the criminals would simply play a video of an attractive woman who appears to be chatting with the victim, with audio disabled.
In a test, they were able to trick users into thinking they were actually chatting with a prerecorded video of a cute woman. They did this by making the video choppy, as if it came from a low-bandwidth network and using text-based chat, instead of audio chat. Only one of the 15 users who chatted with the video asked the researchers to prove that it was of a real, live person. Otherwise, the researchers were regularly able to get people to chat for an hour using this technique.
The novelty and apparent intimacy of a chat session could make it easier to con people into friending scammers on Facebook or even visiting malicious Web sites, said Richard Han, an associate professor with the University of Colorado who co-authored the paper. "If you can present an attractive persona there," he said, "people start to trust the person on the other side and they lower their guard and they start to reveal information about themselves."
They also found a way to make Chatroulette's anonymous chats much less anonymous.
Because Chatroulette's back-end system shares user IP addresses, researchers were able to use IP-mapping services to get a general idea of user's location (a public Web site, called Chatroulettemap.com already does this). Then by searching Facebook using information obtained in chats and comparing pictures, researchers were able to identify chatters.
"Even in a city as big as Chicago, you can drill down and find the person you're actually talking to," Han said.
Privacy takes a hit too, in the paper.