…does that make you insecure?

It’s not a new phenomenon. For almost as long as people have been using webcams, they’ve been covering them up. USB webcams that attach to computer monitors have, for a long time, included a built-in mechanism to cover the lens when not in use, and thanks to the rise of laptops with built-in webcams, a plethora of aftermarket covers are available, such is the apparent ‘need’ to protect ourselves from…something.

Granted, I’m late to this discussion. It’s 2018, former FBI director James Comey admitted he covers his webcam, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg was pictured with tape over his.

Add to those high profile examples the concerns of people in coffee shops, work places and on social media who also choose to cover up, and it seems the collective wisdom is clear and final; we need to cover our webcams. So why even question the logic?

There can’t be many people in the world who wouldn’t be disturbed to learn a stranger has been secretly watching them, using the camera attached to their computer. Whether observed simply staring at our screens, performing mundane tasks across the room or doing something more intimate, the idea of our privacy being invaded is uncomfortable to say the least.

Known as camfecting, hacking a webcam involves infecting the host computer with a malicious piece of software. Variants of the same hack have been used widely in the past, with high profile cases gaining lots of media attention, such as that of Cassidy Wolf - Miss Teen USA 2013 - who was the victim of a webcam hack and subsequent blackmail demands.

Of course, lots of negative press around the issue doesn’t instil confidence, and being suspicious of computers is neither new nor unreasonable. In the ever-connected internet age, software and hardware manufacturers battle viruses, rootkits, trojans, ransomware, state sponsored attacks, compulsory decryption at borders and Lenovo loading up spyware before laptops even leave the factory. Cyber-paranoia it seems, has never felt more justified.

Take a step back from your webcam, and a bigger picture appears. Cassidy Wolf’s hack was an example of why webcams are the least of our worries, because her blackmailer had installed a piece of malware on her computer in the form of a trojan-horse, known as Blackshade.

“Remember, email accounts are the ‘spare key’ to most online accounts”

As with most tools used for webcam snooping, Blackshade allowed the perpetrator to access to Wolf’s built-in camera, but it also gave unfettered access to a dizzying array of data that included her file system, and a log of everything she typed.

Take a moment — think about everything you do online, or offline, on your computer. Shopping, emailing, banking, storing photos, managing passwords and uploading data to the cloud. Is any of that data sensitive? Are any of the photos private or intimate? Do you upload data to the cloud as a secondary backup because it’s so important?

Let’s imagine that your computer has been compromised, and as well as your webcam, a stranger has logged your keyboard input and now has access to your email. Perhaps you never send anything personal, embarrassing or confidential, but remember, email accounts are the ‘spare key’ to most online accounts.

If the stranger wants access to your Dropbox, your Netflix, or your Amazon account, they can request a password reset, and reset the password using the link that each provider will send to your compromised email account.

Worse still, once the hacker achieves whatever it is they want to achieve (finding your nude selfies, the card details you saved to a text file, or ordering themselves a PlayStation) they’re probably going to be quite nervous. Perhaps they’ll delete your accounts to cover their tracks and make it harder for you or anyone else to track them down. It may sound unlikely, but Wired reporter Mat Honan experienced exactly this type of digital devastation back in 2012 because a hacker wanted his three character Twitter handle.

As for online banking, it’s worth remembering that even these services aren’t immune. Despite banks going to considerable effort to secure online services, the fact is, if the computer you use to access your banking service is compromised, there’s very little the bank can do to keep your data secure.

I’m labouring the point, I know. But there is a point, and it’s simple; your webcam isn’t likely to be compromised unless the rest of your computer’s security is compromised too, and in that scenario, your webcam should not be your primary concern.

Covering a webcam is, in my opinion, flawed logic (unless there’s nothing else on your computer that you care about sharing with the world). The act of covering it up is an admission. It says “I don’t know if my computer is secure”, and that’s simply not good enough in the internet connected age.

It might be understandable if you don’t use your computer for any vulnerable services like email, internet banking, password management or if you simply don’t access the internet, but if you have concerns about the possibility of a spy in your webcam, you should be upping your security game long before you cover your webcam.

In other words, get secure, brecause that sticker isn't going to proct you from the worst that the internet has to offer.

No opinion piece would be complete without a few practical tips;

  • Install anti-virus. On Windows 10, built-in (Windows Defender) is good.
    (On Windows 7 it’s a separate download – Microsoft Security Essentials)
  • Ensure anti-virus is up-to-date. If you’re using a paid-for product, or a ‘free trial’, ensure it’s either renewed, or remove it entirely and install a free alternative to coninue protection.
    (Expired, previously paid-for anti-virus provides little to no protection)
  • Ensure a firewall is turned on.
    (Windows firewall is built-in, free and good)
  • Don’t install software if youre unsure of its origin/purpose.
    (If a random website ‘needs’ it, ask yourself why)
  • Be extra careful downloading from services like BitTorrent.
    (Illegal downloads are the perfect mechanism to distribute malware)
  • Ensure your e-mail password is different to other account passwords.
    (Online services get hacked, and passwords leak. Don’t make it easy for hackers by using the same password for every service you use.)
  • Enable two-factor authentication for services which offer it.
    (Sometimes called 2FA, this is an extra step after your password is entered – such as requiring a code sent via SMS – adds a tiny layer of complexity, but makes most services nearly impenetrable)

…and finally….

  • If your webcam has an LED, leave that uncovered, at least.
    (If it comes on at random intervals, there might be a problem)