Webcams and Concalls in the Time of Corona
With such a large percentage of the global population relegated to working from home during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, holding virtual meetings while half-dressed and half-awake on platforms like Zoom, MS Teams, Discord, and the like are – for better or worse – part of life in this Wellsian dystopia we’ve come to call the “new normal.”
But if the security and privacy issues that were fairly recently found in Zoom are anything to go by, the long-standing concerns raised by tech experts regarding video conferencing apps and web cameras in general ought to finally be taken more seriously by the general public.
In fact, these issues are so widely known among people working in the security industry that webcam covers are typically given away as freebies by exhibitors at cybersecurity conferences. According to Jake Moore, a cybersecurity specialist working at ESET, having an uncovered webcam is “essentially placing a surveillance camera into your home.” He also goes on to say that “since the webcam was invented, attackers have targeted it, but over the years, this attack has become more sinister in its use in extortion.”
More than a Hollywood Hoax?
Whereas hacking may have been an on-and-off fad from the late 80s to early 2000s, everything from pop culture phenomenon Black Mirror to somewhat lesser known films like The Fifth Estate seemingly show that cyberattacks and the Internet of Things have now taken on decidedly more menacing meanings.
Despite these growing fears, however, nearly half of all people around the world today are connected online and some 8.4 billion smart devices are currently being used by them. Even now, the vast range of connected devices only continues to grow – our homes, offices, and even vehicles are powered by AI-enhanced tech, voice-activated commands, unseen sensors, and trackers. Even our health, fitness, and daily activities are monitored and, in some cases, dictated by our smartphones and smartwatches.
However, it’s precisely the connectedness of all these things that leaves them vulnerable to security and safety issues. In October of 2016, a large-scale distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack was carried out on an internet performance management company called Dyn using tens of millions of IoT-connected devices such as printers, DVRs, baby monitors, and, of course, webcams. The DDoS prevented Dyn from connecting internet users to popular web addresses like Twitter, Amazon, PayPal, Spotify, HBO, and Netflix. The entire fiasco all stemmed from just one software program known as Mirai, which was used to create the botnet that started the attack.
Beware of Malware
Hackers are able to take over the cameras on your personal computers, laptops, tablets, and phones by way of viruses, spyware, and ransomware – all software variants that are collectively referred to as “malicious software” or “malware.” Fortunately, there are preventive measures that we can all take to stop malware from infecting our devices.
For starters, users should take extra care not to open emails with suspicious links or attachments. You may have heard jokes and stories about this or that auntie being tricked by some fake Nigerian prince and then foolishly disclosing her bank account details online, but some email hoaxes may actually be more sophisticated and convincing than that. To be safe, be wary of unknown senders and also keep an eye out for typos in otherwise legit-looking emails.
Another precaution everyone should take is having an antivirus on your PC, Mac, or Android devices that’s up to date and has the operating system patched in. Provided the antivirus software is the real deal, it should be able to protect your gadgets from viruses and malware.
You might be asking yourself, “Why would anyone want to hack my webcam?” Well, one of the main reasons hackers would want to exploit its vulnerabilities or use malware to take control of your webcam is so that they can use photos and footage of unwitting victims and extort them.
Some people have been made to give up enormous amounts of money in exchange for stolen pictures and videos of themselves showering, changing, or in otherwise compromising positions. Hackers will often threaten to release these online if the victims refuse to pay them.
The problem with this is that you likely won’t be able to notice if and when hackers have taken control of your webcam. Some are even able to remotely switch off the camera “on” light on your device, so you won’t even know that you’re actually being recorded already.
And more alarming still, background information that hackers may be able to piece together from the webcam footage may allow them to pinpoint your office or home address, or else the current whereabouts of your loved ones.
How to Cover Your Webcam
FBI Director James Comey has confirmed that he himself tapes over his computer camera and believes that “people ought to take responsibility for their own safety and security.” And he’s not alone in this thinking; ironically, even Mark Zuckerberg is said to cover his laptop’s camera. Whether or not some people still feel that going to such lengths makes you look a bit paranoid, there’s no denying the possibility of strangers snooping on you through your webcam.
And since it’s unlikely that gadget manufacturers will be including physical camera covers with their products anytime soon, here are just a few quick and easy ways you can cover it yourself:
1. Post-It Notes:
Though readily available at most workplaces and office supply stores, Post-It notes may not be the best way to go. Some of the lighter shades may allow enough light through to get hints of an image.
2. Duct Tape:
An effective if somewhat inelegant method, using duct tape ensures nothing gets through. But in addition to not being the most aesthetically pleasing option, it also tends to leave behind a sticky residue on the camera.
3. Painter’s Tape:
Compared with duct tape, painter’s tape both sticks onto the camera and comes off more cleanly. The only problem, however, is that it can be a little harder to come by, and the generic blue shade may not look much better when placed on your device.
4. Invisible Tape:
It may initially seem like a translucent material wouldn’t do a very good job of obscuring your gadget’s camera, but it does a surprisingly better job than some of it’s more colorful counterparts. Invisible tape only leaves a faint outline visible in terms of captured images or footage, and it also stands out less when stuck to your device.
5. Washi Tape:
While it’s typical purpose is to decorate envelopes and notebooks, washi tape comes in a wider range of prints, shades, and designs, so you’re left with more options that may match the look of your gadget. It also comes off more easily and leaves little to no residue on your camera.
You may want to choose stickers that come in slightly darker colors to make sure any images that may be pulled off your camera aren’t viable. Still, they tend to retain their stickiness even after you’ve removed and reattached them, and they’re able to lend your gadget some more personality.
In addition to simply covering your gadget’s camera, here are a few other things you can do to protect yourself from cybersecurity threats:
- Turn off your device when not in use
- Make sure all of your software is up to date – particularly your antivirus program, web browsers, and plug-ins.
- Keep your firewall up at all times.