From the Digital Citizen's Alliance Report-Selling Rats

From the Digital Citizens Alliance Report-Selling Rats

Whether it’s ISIS recruiting videos or porn, it’s not news that the YouTube monetizes whatever drek gets uploaded to the site.  Now, according to a new report by Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA)*, YouTube is also infested with videos promoting RATS (Remote Access Trojans).

RATS are used by hackers to install malware that takes over computers of unsuspecting internet users.   According to the “Selling Slaving” report by the DCA, their targets are often the young:

…are actively looking to take over the computers, called “slaving,” of young girls and boys—and then selling that information online. In effect, they are selling access to our children’s bedrooms.

How does the growth of this illicit spying activity link back to YouTube?  As is the case with terrorist recruiting videos, YouTube also offers unsavory creeps a worldwide portal that makes it easy to spread their criminal wares via video.  To add insult to injury, these videos are often monetized, meaning YouTube and the hackers not only spread information on this unsavory activity, but also make money from it.

The tutorials included many that showed how to use and spread RATs; links where ratters could download the malware; and examples of RATs successfully deployed showing victims’ faces and IP addresses…Roughly 38 percent of the tutorials for the best-known RATs had advertisements running alongside the videos. The advertising we found included well-known car companies, cosmetics, and even tickets to New York Yankees’ baseball games. YouTube’s parent company, Google, is positioned to get revenue from the sharing of these malicious tutorials that target innocents. –DCA report

The fact Google is making money off garbage is nothing new, but lately a number of online businesses (like Reddit) have been forced to reexamine their “anything goes” policy when it comes to what content to allow online.  The question is to ask in the case of YouTube RATS is why can’t Google do a better with housekeeping?

In a recent New York Times piece, “Limits at Gawker? Rules at Reddit? Wild West Web Turns a Page,” Jonathan Mahler wrote about a maturing web.

There has been no shortage of discussion about how legacy media companies will find their way forward in the digital age. But in trying to recalibrate their identities, Gawker and Reddit are demonstrating that digital media companies are struggling to manage a difficult transition of their own — from financially underachieving, if popular, start-ups to thriving, mature businesses.

“This feels like a moment of reckoning to me,” said Vivian Schiller, the former head of news at Twitter who was previously an executive at The New York Times. “We’re moving from the early days of ‘We’re free to write or post whatever we want,’ to the reality of building a business.”

With this latest DCA report in mind, and the fact that other dubious YouTube users earn income off the filth they spread, one wonders if Google will make better business decisions going forward.  The DCA reports suggests a way forward for YouTube’s parent:

A solution exists, but it will require Google to change the way it approaches this issue. When Google is serious about solving a problem, it assigns a human team to do what an algorithm clearly can’t. Bringing in human teams helped block tens of thousands of search queries for child pornography and to ensure the quality of apps on Google Play. Hacking victims deserve the same concern and protection. Google should assign a human team to reviewing these videos and immediately cease advertising on such video platforms. These victims should not be clickbait and ad revenues from slaving tutorial videos can’t be worth the pain and suffering they cause. [emphasis added]

However, if past history is any indication, Google will likely continue to deflect and dodge. If they do, they risk further damage to its brand.  The DCA report ends with this observation and a quote from a Ratter’s victim asking that Google do more to eradicate this insidious infestation on YouTube:

If Google continues to sell ads beside slaving videos, can it claim Internet freedom as a defense? If one of the world’s most admired companies takes a stand against slaving, others will follow. Perhaps the best advice on how the company could handle that question came from Cassidy Wolf, who said she would tell Google: “They need to put themselves in (the victim’s) shoes… and imagine if it was their daughter that was being watched in their room and now its being promoted on YouTube and the people that are doing this are making money of this and Google is making money off of this. Honestly, I would just tell them to put themselves in the victim’s shoes and imagine if this was happening to them.”

Once again, the ball is in Google’s court.

*full disclosure-I’m a member of the DCA’s Advisory Board