BlackShades, a malicious software program that allows users to take over a computer, steal personal information and even secretly turn on the webcam, is the latest threat to cyber security and Canadians are at the “top of the target list,” experts say.

The malicious software, or malware, has been available for sale since at least 2010, according to the FBI, and thousands of users have downloaded it for the low price of $40.

BlackShades is a Remote Access Tool, or RAT, that gives hackers the ability to access computers around the world.

On Monday, local enforcement agencies in 16 countries, including Canada, arrested 97 people accused of developing, distributing or using the malware in a global crackdown on BlackShades. Authorities in Quebec raided some 15 properties as part of the operation, with more expected in the future, authorities said.

But what is BlackShades and what does it mean for the average Canadian internet user? Quite a lot, it seems.

What is BlackShades?

BlackShades is piece of malware that users can download and use to control a computer from a remote point.

“Essentially it’s as though you’re sitting at the person’s computer,” says Keith Murphy, information security expert at Defence Intelligence in Ottawa. “You can record information that they’re typing in, see what they’re doing, turn on their webcam or listen in. You can do whatever you want.”

Security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies use Remote Access Tools for surveillance activities, and a company’s IT department uses RATs to gain access to employees’ computers to fix problems when they can’t sit down in front of the computer itself.

But RATs are also used by cyber-criminals.

Holding files for ransom

A BlackShades user can do a lot, experts say, including steal your personal information, such as banking passwords. A cyber-criminal can also lock somebody’s computer and deny access to his or her files until the victim pays a ransom.

Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf was a victim of what’s being called “sextortion.” In her case, a 20-year-old man used BlackShades to take nude pictures of Wolf and other women and then threatened to post the pictures online unless they either agreed to video chat with him or send him more nude pictures.

Jared James Abrahams pleaded guilty last year to extortion and computer hacking and was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

“Oftentimes people think, ‘Well, I’m not doing anything wrong, I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to lose,’” Murphy told CTV News Channel on Tuesday. “But think of it, anybody can lock your computer tomorrow and make you pay them to unlock it. Anybody can take pictures of you and post those online or force you to pay them to get them back. Everybody is at risk.’

Canada at ‘top of the target list’

BlackShades is “a massive problem globally,” Murphy says, but Canada is “definitely at the top of the target list.”

The reason for this, he says, is due to Canada’s close relationship with the United States. Hackers want access to trade secrets, intellectual property and information about government negotiations.

But it’s not just governments that are at risk.

“Anybody is potentially a victim of opportunity,” Murphy says. “What these people will do is throw out their net and look through it afterwards and see what they’ve got.”

Malware is everywhere

BlackShades is making headlines this week, it’s not the only threat out there. While thousands of people are believed to have paid about $40 to download the software, “there are roughly 200,000 pieces of malware being released every single day,” Murphy says.

Law enforcement agencies have estimated that BlackShades has infected about half a million computers around the world. However, Adam Molnar of the surveillance studies centre at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., says that figure could be upwards of 700,000.

“You’re not talking about sophisticated hackers in this particular case,” Molnar told News Channel. “You’re looking at people who downloaded a program that carries these functions out on their behalf. It’s readily available.”

It’s hard to detect

While anti-virus software is often touted as one of the surefire ways to protect your computer, most conventional programs do not detect BlackShades, Murphy says.

The FBI has posted a detailed memo to its website that explains how to check if your computer is infected with BlackShades.

Security is your responsibility

While security experts are developing new tools to detect and protect against malware like BlackShades, Murphy says, cyber security comes down to each user.

“The most important thing is people need to start caring about this,” Murphy says. “One of the problems is, security typically isn’t very easy.”

Users don’t like having complicated passwords, or different passwords for all of the different site they use, he notes.

“Until you start to really care about what you have online, it’s not going to matter,” he says.