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Security Center / Definitions / Webcam Privacy

Webcam Privacy

Have you ever used your laptop to make a video call with Skype or Google Hangouts? Or participated in a videoconference with Zoom or GoToMeeting? If so, you can thank that marvel of modern technology: the pinhole webcam typically located right above your laptop screen. You probably don’t give much thought to your webcam when you’re not using it – but can you be sure nobody else is using it without your knowledge? Here’s what you should know about webcam privacy, and how to make sure hackers and voyeurs aren’t watching you.

To begin, it is technically possible for a remote hacker to take control of your webcam, turn it on, and capture images of you. This doesn’t just happen on dystopian TV shows like Black Mirror.

In one notorious case, U.S. prosecutors recently charged [1] an Ohio man with creating both macOS and Windows versions of “Fruitfly” malware and spreading it to thousands of computers. Fruitfly violated its victims’ privacy in multiple ways – among them, watching them via webcam and listening via their computers’ internal microphones. The government alleges that the defendant even built himself a convenient dashboard so he could watch many people at once.

Fruitfly was an example of a “remote access Trojan” (RAT), malware that’s downloaded invisibly as a user downloads another program, and then opens a back door that gives someone else full administrative control over a computer.

Reports don’t say whether Fruitfly could turn off the light that signals a webcam is active. That’s hard to do, but according to multiple reports [2], it can and has been done elsewhere. In fact, U.S. federal law enforcement [3] itself has apparently done it.

So what can you do to improve your webcam privacy?

Let’s start with the obvious. If you never use your laptop’s webcam, you could cover it with black tape, so the device just can’t see you. (At least two people who know something about personal privacy have done just that: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and former FBI Director James Comey.) Or, if you’d rather not mess up your laptop with sticky tape, you can purchase an inexpensive webcam cover.

If you use an external webcam because your computer didn’t come with one, you can simply disconnect it when you’re not using it.

If you’re using Sophos Home Premium, it’s helping you protect your webcam privacy right now. It can alert you whenever an outside source attempts to access either your webcam or microphone, on either your Windows or Mac computer. You can then choose to approve or deny access.

We’ve covered computer-connected webcams, but you might own other Internet-connected cameras: indoor and outdoor security cameras, baby monitors, and so forth. Those may be even more vulnerable, and you need to take other steps to secure those, as we discussed here.

Bottom line: if you want control over who’s watching you in your own home, you need to take some precautions. They’re simple – but necessary.



References

1 https://www.scribd.com/document/389668977/Durachinsky-Indictment
2 https://blog.erratasec.com/2013/12/how-to-disable-webcam-light-on-windows.html#.XK312phKhPY
3 https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/2013/12/06/352ba174-5397-11e3-9e2c-e1d01116fd98_story.html?utm_term=.8d8f166b7722

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