You may have heard in recent years the dangers of having cameras on our devices. Whether it was Mark Zuckerberg’s June 2016 picture celebrating Instagram’s achievement of hitting half a billion monthly users, former FBI Director James Comey’s interview regarding cybersecurity, or the 2010 incident in Pennsylvania where a school was found to be secretly spying on students, all of these events have one thing in common, webcam’s potential risks.
Through the media, it is hard to decipher what is fact anymore; covering up your webcam seems to be today’s version of a tinfoil hat. However, what exactly is the likelihood of having your webcam hacked? How does a hacker pull this off, and most importantly, what can a hacker achieve from doing this? Let me shed some light on this darker side of technology.
Can Your Webcam Actually Be Hacked?
First of all, hacking a webcam is honestly not that difficult and can be executed using a variety of methods. For example, when you download something from the internet, Trojan horse malware can be inadvertently installed on your computer; this malware can then install remote desktop software, which allows hackers to gain control of your device (chances are, you probably wouldn’t even notice). Remote administration software, when programmed to break into computers, is often called a RAT (Remote Access Trojan).
Now, if you are thinking, “I would never install something like that on my own computer,” well, you would be surprised at how easy it is to open up an email from a close friend (using a name and email found on your social media page) and then click on a video link (with the date and name of the bar you were at (that they again found on social media)). After downloading the video to make sure it didn’t contain your drunken behavior, the Trojan would then be installed, giving hackers entrance to your system.
Working in IT, I gain access to multiple computers every day, all while sitting at a single desk. With my remote control over a computer, I can very easily edit the computer’s camera settings and even set it up so that the camera’s LED does not turn on (by uploading a change to the webcam software that instructs it to ignore the standby input and ensure that the standby line is always held high, thus preventing the LED from illuminating). Long story short, your webcam can indeed, be hacked. Now onto the next question, why would it be hacked in the first place?
Why Hack a Webcam?
Once a hacker gains access to your webcam, there is a disturbingly large number of methods they can use to earn a profit from the images/videos or gain some other form of benefit. Most likely, the images they capture are often used for personal or shared sexual interests (I am not going to go any deeper into that, it is pretty disgusting). However, images and video captured from webcams can be used to blackmail users, especially those with a public image to uphold; you hear about this sort of thing all the time in the news and entertainment (the TV show ‘Mr. Robot’ has a great example of this). Additionally, webcam access has a black-market value, bought and sold by those who wish to make a quick dollar (or more likely crypto-coin) by extorting an individual’s privacy.
Now before you start panicking, it is important to realize that unless you are famous, rich, or have some other reason for a hacker to desire to access your webcam, you (thankfully) will be of no interest to them. However, in my opinion, if there is even a 0.1% chance you may be targeted, why not try to prevent it?
How to Protect Your Webcam (and Privacy)
As the IoT (Internet of Things) both expands and increases in sophistication, pretty much everything that can have a camera, currently has or will have one. However, there is a vast number of ways you can protect your webcam from unauthorized individuals.
One of the easiest, fastest, and most inexpensive methods is to simply cover up your webcam with a piece of electrical tape, Post-It Note, or using a custom sliding webcam cover (available online); Mark Zuckerberg himself does this, if that gives you an idea of the importance of this action. While covering up your webcam prevents images and video from being captured, the audio alone can still be retrieved and used against you.
Both installing and keeping your security software up-to-date is critical to ensuring that hackers can not access your webcam. While many free programs have their uses, I would recommend paying for the premium-versions of some of the top programs out there. A robust security suite defends against ransomware, spyware, viruses, malware, and many other online threats.
Firewalls provide a wall of defense by monitoring internet traffic to and from your network, thus preventing access to your webcam. Your computer will more than likely already have one installed, but ensure that it is turned on and continuously updated.
Wi-Fi security is often quite effortless to penetrate. For more information on how to secure your network, check out my post on boosting Wi-Fi security.
Avoiding Suspicious Links
Like previously mentioned, one of the most used methods for hackers to gain access to your webcam is by tricking you into installing malware. Always pay attention to suspicious links, downloads, or websites. Be on the lookout for misspelled words, search for copyright notices, and do not ignore pop-ups from your security software when a problem arises.
Hopefully, you now see the potential dangers from having your webcam hacked; while the likelihood of this happening to you is low, so is the risk of crashing in an airplane (but you still think about it every time you fly, right?) Always prepare for the worst, using the best possible tools. After all, the best tool for safeguarding the privacy and security of your online presence is knowledge.
Titcomb, James. (2016). The Telegraph. Why has Mark Zuckerberg taped over the webcam and microphone on his MacBook? Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/06/22/why-has-mark-zuckerberg-taped-over-the-webcam-and-microphone-on/.
Hattem, Julian. (2016). The Hill. FBI director: Cover up your webcam. Retrieved from https://thehill.com/policy/national-security/295933-fbi-director-cover-up-your-webcam.
Whitney, Lance. (2010). CNET. School escapes charges in Webcam spying case. Retrieved from https://www.cnet.com/news/school-escapes-charges-in-webcam-spying-case/.