Question of the week: Could my webcam be someone’s spy cam?

Question: “I just visited a friend and I noticed a sticker at the top of his notebook screen. I asked him what that’s all about, and he said he wants to stop his private life from becoming a reality show by preventing his webcam from spying on him. Has he been watching too many dodgy films or does he have a point?”

Answer: Your friend isn’t alone in his concerns. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg revealed in 2016 that he also tapes over his computer’s webcam — at least that’s what a photo posted by him reveals. The former head of the FBI, James Comey, also recommends taping over webcams, his justification being that the risk is just too great of spyware getting on our computer and controlling the camera.

Home sweet home, for hackers

It’s not just prominent people and famous faces that need to be worried. A while back, the US government charged a man from Ohio with using malware to steal personal data from thousands of people. It involved him using the malware to take control of the victims’ webcam and microphone to record images and audio of them in their own home. This would have allowed him to uncover a great deal of sensitive information such as their account details and passwords as well as learn about the victims’ daily comings and goings and what they got up to in their own four walls.

A good antivirus program is your best defense

The best defense against such attacks isn’t a sticker, but good antivirus software. A powerful security suite will include antivirus, anti-spyware, a firewall, and other functions that can nip such attacks in the bud. This is because most webcam hackers employ Trojan malware, where they attempt to install software covertly that allows them to take control of your desktop remotely and access your webcam and other functions. Such Trojans are often hidden in seemingly harmless email attachments or appear as links in social media posts. Good internet security suites also actively block programs from accessing your webcam without your permission, where you first need to click a dialog to grant your consent for a program to access your camera. It’s a level of protection that Windows 10’s built-in antivirus program Defender doesn’t offer. These top tips will also help you safeguard your privacy:

  • If you use an external USB webcam, only plug it in when you need to use it.
  • Some webcams come fitted with a small cover that you can slide over the lens. Use it.
  • If your webcam doesn’t have a cover, you can simply leave your webcam pointing at the ceiling when you’re not using it.
  • If you’ve got a built-in webcam, you can get yourself a cover from an online retailer. They cost next to nothing and they’re easy to find — just search for “webcam sticker”. There are a variety of designs out there, from a sliding cover to a simple sticker that removes without leaving any gunk behind.
Such webcam stickers are available from online retailers for around a dollar each.

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Former journalist. Storyteller at heart.