Covering your webcam with tape

To some, it smacks of paranoia and conspiracy. To others, it’s the only reasonable option.

But what’s the truth of the matter? Could taping over your webcam help protect you against some unwelcome spying? Or something else?

We delve into this unusual query, examining the arguments for and against this common precaution.

Where Did This Idea Come From?

The notion of covering up your webcam has been around for as long as webcams have been a thing. But, the trend first made waves when a photo of Mark Zuckerberg went viral. Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, was at his desk at Facebook HQ, and many observers noted that his webcam was covered up with a piece of tape. Suddenly, there was a frenzy to determine the reason behind this. What does Zuck know that we don’t? And the practise suddenly went viral.

It soon became apparent that other high profile individuals do the same thing. Former FBI Director James Comey even suggested that everyone should follow suit, comparing taping over a webcam to locking one’s front door at night.

What are We Afraid Of?

What are the possible concerns of an uncovered webcam?

If you own a laptop today, chances are extremely high that it is equipped with a camera. Is there really any potential for threats or danger via this tiny lens?

Some say yes, and a few news stories back them up.

One of the major fears has been exploitation via secret filming. A hacker looking for monetary gain could ostensibly capture secret footage of you without your knowledge and then use that footage to extort payment. Potentially, such footage could be embarrassing or of a sensitive nature---either way, it’s an extreme invasion of privacy. In an effort to extort or blackmail, hackers could demand payment in order to stop them from releasing their alleged recordings, from uploading them to the internet for the world to see, to sending them to specific people. It’s easy to imagine how this situation could become problematic, especially for high-profile figures.

One of the first widespread tales of such a crime focused on a young Miss Teen USA, Cassidy Wolf, who was the victim of a webcam hacker who allegedly captured illicit photos of her without her knowledge. The hacker then attempted to extort Wolf, threatening to release the images if she did not meet his demands. Eventually located and arrested, the hacker had used remote administration tools (RATs) to gain access to Wolf’s laptop.

Information about how to engage these RATs is alarmingly accessible to would-be hackers. Online forums, including one frequented by Wolf’s hacker, show that these hackers trade tips and tricks, including which laptops have an included camera light. Wolf has stated that she had no suspicions of being spied on because her webcam’s light never went on, indicating it was recording.

Closer to home, hundreds of Australians have fallen victim to a scam service pretending to offer computer assistance. According to reports, users who are in need of computer troubleshooting are conned into paying large sums of money for often nonexistent computer issues and revealing personal bank details. But perhaps worse, these victims are also unknowingly filmed via their webcams. In this scam, the victims were recorded giving “testimonials” for the company. While they had no idea they were being filmed, the users, apparently interacting with the “tech person”, would read off positive statements about the service they had received. Many of these videos were eventually uploaded to YouTube as “promotion” for the sham company. While this example may be less frightening than the story of Miss Teen USA, it too represents a tremendous violation of privacy.

These varied tales of hacking and extortion, though not common, do strike a nerve. Such an event is not only legally concerning, it can feel like a genuine violation or an attack. A Toronto woman whose camera was hacked while she and her partner were watching Netflix on her laptop, shares how the incident affected her: “We obviously had no idea it was taking place in the moment, but retroactively it was like a really, really deeply creepy feeling. It was very unnerving. I mean it does feel like there’s someone just in your home with you.”

Truths and Myths

So what’s the truth? Can your webcam be hacked remotely?

The answer is yes, but it’s pretty unlikely.

So be able to activate your webcam remotely, and thus spy on you/record you without your knowledge, a hacker would need to instal a specific program on your computer that would make this possible. If the individual had in-person access to your computer, they could perform such a task, or, more likely, you’d receive an email with a link. An unsuspecting user might click this link and then download the program files that would enable remote access for a hacker. But as a careful Internet user, it’s likely that you would avoid clicking on a suspicious, unknown link.

Both the above scenarios are difficult to fathom. Someone would have to access your laptop directly or successfully have you instal files on your device. These are both unlikely occurrences. Perhaps even more unlikely is the potential for you to be a target. Truth be told, the average person such as you or I is an unlikely candidate for a spy operation. Billionaires, celebrities, and major figures might have cause for concern (like Zuckerberg or Comey), but for us, the risks are minimal.

Should “Normal People” Do This

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to cover up your webcam is up to you. You might find that the news stories provide ample evidence that it’s a good idea to grab that tape. In the end, anything you would like to do to protect your online security, no matter how cautious, is never a bad idea.

Aside from covering your webcam with tape, there are a few other things you can do to avoid webcam hacking and protect your privacy.

Turn it off

When you’re not using your computer, it’s a smart idea to shut it off. Powering down your device means your camera can’t possibly be recording. This is a wise precaution that ensures you’re not within view of your webcam when you’re not expecting it. In particular, close your laptop when using it in your bedroom. This will avoid a worst-case hacking scenario, plus, shutting off the bright light has the added bonus of improving your sleep! If you don’t feel like doing a complete shutdown, you can also just close your laptop.

Enable malware protection

Having virus protection is paramount, but a lot of the typical antivirus programs aren’t equipped to catch webcam-related spyware or malware. It’s a smart idea to instal additional security with some anti-spyware.

Change that password

Did you know your webcam may have a password? Webcams which connect directly to a wi-fi network (usually called IP cams) have a password-protected settings page and video feed. If you don’t know this exists, you probably haven’t taken the time to change it. With the default username and password still in place, it’s far easier for a hacker to gain access.

Watch out for suspicious emails

Have you received an email from an unknown sender or a name/address you don’t recognise? Proceed cautiously. If this email has an attached file, it may contain a malware file capable of placing webcam malware on your device. You should be wary even if you are receiving an email that appears to be sent from trusted sources. Sometimes, these can be phishing scams that ask you to click on a link or disclose personal details.

Beware the short link

This can be a tough thing to remember, but occasionally, malware is spread via links on social media sites. The URLs used are shortened with services such as Bitly or TinyURL, as the shortened URL masks the destination site. On social media, short links are everywhere. Many bloggers, brands, and businesses make use of short links on platforms like Twitter. This is another reason to only click on links from people you know or users you are familiar with. Even then, you can never be too cautious.

Instead of clicking directly on a short link, there are ways to see where the URL will take you beforehand. This can prevent you from clicking a dangerous link. One of the simplest methods is to instal an extension to your Chrome browser, but there are other services to choose from as well.

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The conclusion? Cover your webcam if you choose to, but don’t lose too much sleep over it.

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