Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!
Today’s computers and mobile devices are full-service platforms for all sorts of activities, including audio and video conferencing. As readers of this blog are aware, there is a potential dark side with computing that one needs to be vigilant to prevent our privacy and security from getting compromised.
All newer computers, tablets and smart phones have microphones and cameras that could be activated remotely by someone that doesn’t even resemble Allen Funt (if you understand that reference, you’re getting up there). Smile, you could be on Candid Camera.
Webcam hacking has become much more prevalent recently and in the extreme, can cause significant emotional and potentially financial harm. There have been several cases where folks have been spied on, the sessions recorded, then either posted on the Internet or the victim blackmailed. There have also been some legal cases, including one where a school-issued computer permitted spying.
The press has been focusing on webcam hacking, but if you’re vulnerable to webcam hacking, you are also vulnerable to the complete range of privacy and security issues, including activation of the microphone, the theft of personal and sensitive data and your computer getting co-opted to be used to attack others.
Oh my Gawd … what should I do?
Take a couple deep breaths, then let’s think this through. First and foremost, all of the safeguards you should be doing, you should continue to do. This includes up-to-date Anti-virus, proper maintenance of your router (including not opening up ports or computers to directly access the Internet and not permitting your router to be administered outside of your home network), strong security on your WIFI network, not clicking on URLs in emails or ecards, not visiting sketchy sites (like porn sites), etc. Finally, if you’re running Windows Vista, 7 or 8 or MacOS, never, ever approve the installation of software if you didn’t ask to be installed. An extension of this is to never install software from a sketchy site. Only install software from a reputable vendor or from the appropriate app store.
For webcams and microphones (which in my opinion is just as serious), I have the following recommendations:
- Put the device to sleep or shut it down when not being used. Be sure to set the power setting that will not have the computer wake on network access (see below for instructions).
- In my opinion, computers in bedrooms is largely a bad idea, especially for teens and young adults.
- If you have a computer issued by a school or work, it’s even more important that you power down or sleep it when you’re not using it, since this type of hack requires an agent be installed on the computer, which you’ll simply not know about if installed.
- Some folks recommend taping over or covering the lens, which certainly will mitigate webcam hacking. However, in general I’m not in favor of this for couple reasons: First, it prevents or impedes legitimate use of the webcam. More importantly, it doesn’t solve covert access to the microphone or your other data. Basically, it gives a false sense of security.
- Be sure that any applications that use the camera are up-to-date. This includes Skype, Facebook, Google+, FaceTime, etc. There have been bugs reported in these apps that hackers could use to access webcams, though I’m not aware of any real life breaches. Bug fixes would appear in app updates.
- All legitimate apps that use the webcam will only turn on the camera with your permission. If you find an app that doesn’t, report it as a bug to the vendor and uninstall the app until they fix it.
- The simplest defense is the light on the camera. All computer webcams (both external and internal) have a light that comes on when the camera is activated. If you ever see that light come on when you aren’t using it, assume you have a virus and take your computer to an expert to get analyzed. It is very difficult, if not impossible to prevent the camera from coming on without also turning on the light. Turn on your camera to see what the light looks like.
Regarding tablets and smart phones. As long as your phone is not jail broke and is running applications from the appropriate app store, you should be pretty safe. I always cover my iPad when I’m done with it. Also, make sure it’s password protected. All the cases I’ve been able to find about webcam hacking used Windows-based malware.
One other comment: You need to be honest about how “juicy” a target you or someone in your household might be. Celebrities are easy. Angelina or Brad, if you’re reading this, you know that you’re a juicy target and there are folks who want to hijack your computer. For “regular” folks, you also need to consider whether there is someone in your life who wants to embarrass or hurt you in some manner AND they have or have had access to your computer. The obvious cases are teens recently broken up with their boy or girl friend, or someone getting a contentious divorce. In these cases, you need to change your digital “locks”. I’d strongly recommend changing passwords and either getting a new computer or re-imaging your current computer.
For more information:
- I authored a recent post on webcams in some new smart TVs.
- Here’s a short Wikipedia article on webcam hacking or “camfecting”.
- Here’s a chilling article and video from the Today show.
- Here’s an article about a Facebook webcam hack, which has been fixed.
- Here’s a blog post on concept of “Stop, Think, Connect” from Paul Lubic.
- Who is Allen Funt?
To not allow network access to wake a sleeping computer:
- For a Mac, go to System Preferences, click on Energy Saver, then uncheck Wake for Network Access.
- For Windows, you need to configure each network device. Go to Control Panel->Network and Sharing Center. For each active device (LAN or WIFI), click on Properties. Click Power Manager, then uncheck Allow this device to wake the computer.