Webcameras and their possible misuse have been a hot topic lately, what with the alleged ‘laptop spycam‘ case currently ongoing against a high school in Philadelphia, US.
Now, by and large, webcams can be tremendously useful. They’re used in a huge variety of legitimate settings, from home security to cross-country family chats, from peak hour traffic monitoring to the porn industry (ahem). In fact, webcams are only a concern if someone takes unauthorized control of one for their own ends.
Before looking into this though, firstly – is that even likely to happen to the average user? Do most people need to worry about a peeping-tom webcam?
Well, strictly speaking, if your computer is secure and uninfected, can’t be accessed remotely, and has some kind of physical protection (strong password, locked case, tied up with string) to prevent people from accessing it when unattended, then no, no worries – you’re good.
If your computer is not as secure as you’d like; if you don’t control the software installed on it; if you don’t know how to configure the settings on the programs installed – it’s still pretty unlikely, though there’s still a chance. Logically, it’s like the odds of being struck by lightning – possible, but improbable.
The trouble is, when it comes to privacy, ‘rational’ can have a hard time fighting ’emotional’. Personally, there’s just something about the thought of someone spying on me through my own webcam that creeps the bejeesus out of me. It’s like finding an eyeball staring back at you through the keyhole of a cupboard door.
So, let’s say you’d like that small possibility to be even slighter. How exactly could some depraved perv..ahem, attacker get control of your webcam? Well, there are really only a few ways your webcam can be taken over:
The program used to control a webcam may include a remote admin feature allowing someone not physically present to control it (usually over the Internet). Remote admin functionality could also be added in a separate program.
If you aren’t permitted to modify the control program’s settings, or aren’t allowed to install/uninstall programs (more true of company-issued laptops than personal owners), or just don’t know how to do it, well…basically, someone else has control. Hopefully, they’re not the sort to snoop.
For those with full control of their system, trojans are probably more relevant. These are malicious programs (usually disguised as a PDF or document file) that secretly install other programs onto a computer. For spying to be a concern, the installed program has to be a backdoor – which is basically remote admin software, only nastier. Examples include Backdoor:W32/Hupigon, Backdoor:W32/PoisonIvy and Backdoor:W32/SDBot.MB.
Again, the chances of getting hit by a trojan carrying a backdoor payload boils down to juggling probabilities – if the computer has no AV protection, if it is connected to the Internet and/or if you transfer files to it without scanning them first, if an infected file is a trojan and if it has a backdoor as its payload…You get the idea. It’s happened before, as this reports shows, but how likely you are to get hit really depends on how secure you are.
Possibly the least likely, but definitely the creepiest is when someone literally sits down at your computer and switches on the webcam, or installs remote admin software, without you being aware of it. This is basically stalking behavior, with a few cases reported; there have even been movies (most recently, Alone With Her) made on this premise.
Is it a possibility? Yes. Is it likely? There’s absolutely no figures or surveys on this, so all I can say is that unless you have reason to believe you’re being stalked, most likely not.
So, how to ensure you’re as safe as can be from being spied on? And let’s assume I don’t just say ‘get a good antivirus program’ (because that’d be a shameless plug), or the usual stuff about protecting your computer. What can you do? A lot, actually.
You could choose a webcam with security features. Most webcams today come with an LED light that switches on whenever the cam is transmitting. Or get a webcam with a lens cover (oddly these seem to have fallen out of fashion, are people more trusting these days?).
Then there’s this cute humanoid figure-like ‘anti-peeping‘ webcam, with arms that move automatically or manually to cover its ‘eye-lens’ – I haven’t been able to get my hands on this yet, so if someone has this already, let me know how it works out!
If you already have a webcam, you can go through the settings for its control program – if there’s a remote admin feature included and you’re not using it, make sure it’s disabled. You may need to check the documentation for the program to do this.
If you’re using a wireless webcam setup, make sure your wireless network is secured, so that noone can nick the webcam feed off your own network. Maybe not with WEP though; the stronger WPA2 would be nice.
Some less techie things you can do are:
1. Unplug it when not in use (if it’s an external web-cam).
2. Turn it to face a wall when not in use (doesn’t mute the mic, though).
And for some really no-brainer fixes….
Or Post-It notes (some students in the spycam laptop case reportedly used this as well).
Or Blu-tack (I haven’t tried this myself, but a commenter in a forum mentioned it might help with blocking microphone transmissions as well).
Heck, even a tea cosy would do.
When IT savvy fails, a MacGuyver solution might do the trick.
CC image credit: Itiro
Yet another big vulnerability in the headlines. The Metaphor hack was discovered by Israel-based NorthBit and can be used to take control over almost any Android device. The vulnerability can be exploited from video files that people encounter when surfing the web. It affects all versions of Android except version 6, which is the latest major version also known as Marshmallow. But why is this such a big deal? Severe vulnerabilities are found all the time and we receive updates and patches to fix them. A fast update process is as a matter of fact a cyber security cornerstone. What makes this issue severe is that it affects Android, which to a large extent lack this cornerstone. Android devices are usually not upgraded to new major versions. Google is patching vulnerabilities, but these patches’ path to the devices is long and winding. Different vendors’ practices for patching varies a lot, and many devices will never receive any. This is really a big issue as Android’s smartphone market share is about 85% and growing! How is this possible? This underlines one of the fundamental differences between the Android and iOS ecosystems. Apple’s products are planned more like the computers we are used to. They are investments and will be maintained after purchase. iOS devices receive updates, and even major system upgrades, automatically and free of charge. And most users do install them. Great for the security. Android is a different cup of tea. These devices are mostly aimed at a cheaper market segment. They are built as consumables that will be replaced quite frequently. This is no doubt a reasonable and cost-saving strategy for the vendors. They can focus on making software work on the currently shipping devices and forget about legacy models. It helps keeping the price-point down. This leads to a situation where only 2,3% of the Android users are running Marshmallow, even half a year after release. The contrast against iOS is huge. iOS 9 has been on the market about the same time and already covers 79% of the user base. Apple reported a 50% coverage just five days after release! The Android strategy backfires when bugs like Metaphor are discovered. A swift and compete patch roll-out is the only viable response, but this is not available to all. This leaves many users with two bad options, to replace the phone or to take a risk and keep using the old one. Not good. One could think that this model is disappearing as we all grow more and more aware of the cyber threats. Nope, development actually goes in the opposite direction. Small connected devices, IoT-devices, are slowly creeping into our homes and lives. And the maintenance model for these is pretty much the same as for Android. They are cheap. They are not expected to last long, and the technology is developing so fast that you would be likely to replace them anyway even if they were built to last. And on top of that, their vendors are usually more experienced in developing hardware than software. All that together makes the IoT-revolution pretty scary. Even if IoT-hacking isn’t one of the ordinary citizen’s main concerns yet. So let’s once again repeat the tree fundamental commands for being secure on-line. Use common sense, keep your device patched and use a suitable security product. If you have a system that provides regular patches and updates, keep in mind that it is a valuable service that helps keeping you safe. But it is also worth pointing out that nothing as black and white. There are unfortunately also problematic update scenarios. Safe surfing, Micke Photo by etnyk under CC
A recent PEW report says that 86 percent of people have taken action to avoid online surveillance, including simple things like clearing their browser cache, as well as using more effective methods, such as using a VPN (virtual private network). The same report says that 61 percent of participants indicated that they’d like to do more. Many people understand their privacy is at risk when they do things online, and want to do something about it. But that’s easier said than done. Not only do you have to have the will to make it happen, but you have to know where to start. Who do you want to protect your privacy from anyway? Facebook? The NSA? Nosey neighbors? PEW’s report says that 91 percent of people agree or strongly agree that consumers have lost control over personal information that is collected and used by companies. So if you want to take this control back, the first thing you need to do is figure out who’s stalking you online. F-Secure’s Freedome VPN, which you can try for free, has baked-in tracking protection technologies to help people protect their privacy while they’re surfing online. It also has Tracker Mapper – a feature that people can use to control how they expose themselves to Internet trackers. Tracker Mapper has been available for Macs and Windows PCs for about half a year, and was just launched for Freedome’s Android and iOS apps. So how does using Tracker Mapper help you control your online privacy? Here’s our Chief Research Officer, Mikko Hyppönen, talking about how online tracking threatens people’s privacy, and how Freedome (and Tracker Mapper) can help people protect themselves. [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1F8sHjCBx0&w=560&h=315] I ran a little experiment to help me learn how to limit my exposure to trackers while planning a vacation. I used Alexa to help me find some popular travel websites that I could use to shop for deals on hotels. After that, I turned on Tracker Mapper (which is turned off by default, because we respect the fact that people don’t want apps to create logs without permission) so I could find out which of these websites used the most tracking to study me as I used their site. I chose 5 of the more popular sites, and then I spent about 10 minutes on each, and left a bit of extra time so I could check out the results in between. The whole thing took me about an hour, giving me a one-hour log of the tracking attempts Freedome blocked while I browsed these sites. Tracker Mapper creates an interactive visualization of the blocked tracking attempts, and gives you information on what trackers attempted to monitor you on different websites. It also shows how these trackers link together to create a network capable of monitoring you as you navigate from website to website. These are screenshots showing how Tracker Mapper visualizes online tracking, as well some of the statistics it provides. The capture on the left shows the entire overview of the session (which lasted exactly one hour). The shot in the middle shows the sites I visited ordered by the most tracking attempts. The capture on the right shows the actual trackers that attempted to track me during my session, ordered by the number of blocked attempts. Based on this, Trip Advisor appears to have made the most tracking attempts. But you can learn even more about this by combining Tracker Mapper with a bit of online digging. You can tap on the different “bubbles” in Tracker Mapper to pull up statistics about different websites and tracking services. The first screen capture shows how many tracking attempts from different services were blocked when I visited Trip Advisor. The next two show the most prominent tracking services Freedome blocked – the tracker that TripAdvisor has integrated into its website (www.tripadvisor.com), and a tracking tag from Scorecard Research (b.scorecardresearch.com). As you might have guessed, TripAdvisor’s own tracking service is only used on their website (it’s what’s called “first-party tracking”). That’s why Tracker Mapper doesn’t show any connections between it and other websites. The second one, Scorecard Research, is used on both Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet. That’s why there are lines connecting it with both (it’s what’s called “third-party tracking”). Scorecard research is a marketing research firm that provides tracking and analytic services by having websites host their “tags”, which collect information about those website’s visitors. The Guardian has an excellent write-up about Scorecard Research, but what’s missing from the Guardian story is that you can opt-out of Scorecard Research’s tracking. Basically, they put a cookie on your browser, which isn’t an uncommon way for tracking companies to allow web surfers to protect their privacy (and oddly enough, a common way for them to track you). Stripping trackers out of websites lets people take control of who’s monitoring what they do online. PEW’s survey found that this idea of control is central to people’s concerns about online privacy - 74 percent of respondents said it’s important to control who can get information, and 65 percent said its important to control what information is collected. However, opting out of every tracking service (and for every browser you use) by installing opt-out cookies isn’t as convenient as using Freedome. And as F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan pointed out in this blog post, it actually works much better for your browsing (one experiment found that Freedome can reduce the time it takes to load web pages by about 30 percent, and decrease data consumption by about 13 percent). You can download Freedome for a free trial and find out for yourself if how it can help you control your online privacy. And right now, you can win free annual subscriptions, as well as cool swag (like stylish hoodies) by posting a screenshot showing your blocked tracking attempts to F-Secure’s Facebook wall, or on Instagram with F-Secure tagged. The contest is open till March 23rd, and 5 winners will be randomly drawn after it ends.
We who write stuff in the security industry are used to dashing off sentences like, “Online attacks are becoming more and more advanced” or “Malware is continually evolving in sophistication.” But in the past year we experienced a surprising throwback to one type of malware from an earlier era. Malware that uses a rather old technique, but it’s causing plenty of trouble nonetheless. It kinda feels like we've gone back in time. I’m talking about macro malware. It’s something we hadn’t seen prominently since the early 2000’s. And now, as touched on in our just released Threat Report covering the 2015 threat landscape, it has reared its head again. What is macro malware? Macro malware takes advantage of the macro feature in Office documents to execute commands. And macros are simply shortcuts the user can create for repeated tasks. For example, let’s say you are creating a document in Word and you find yourself repeatedly editing text to be red with a yellow highlight, 16 point, italic and right aligned. To save time, you can create a macro of your commands and then whenever you need that kind of style, simply run the macro. A little history Macro malware was common back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The first macro malware, Concept, was discovered in 1995, although it was basically harmless, simply displaying a dialogue box. In 1999, one of the most notorious macro malware, Melissa, was discovered. Melissa emailed itself to 50 addresses in the user’s address book, spreading to 20% of the world’s computers. But macro malware wouldn’t last long. When Microsoft released Word 2003, the default security settings were changed to stop macros from automatically running when a document opened. This made it more difficult to infect a computer through macros and attackers mostly dropped them to focus on other methods. So what happened? Why is it back again? The re-emergence, according to Sean Sullivan, Security Advisor in F-Secure Labs, may be correlated with the decline of exploitable vulnerabilities due to security improvements in today’s common software applications like Microsoft Office. Exploits have been one of the most common ways to infect machines in recent years, but with fewer software holes to exploit, malware authors seem to be reverting to other tricks. How it’s successful Today’s macro malware attempts to get around Microsoft’s default settings with a simple trick. When a document is opened, the information inside doesn’t appear properly to the viewer – for example, sometimes the document looks like scrambled gobbledygook. Text in the document claims that macros, or content, must be enabled for proper viewing. Here’s one example: Curiosity? Just plain unaware? Whatever the reason, as Sean says, the malware’s reappearance has been successful because “People click.” Once macros have been enabled, the malicious macro code is executed – which then downloads the payload. Macro malware is used by crypto-ransomware families like Cryptowall and the newest threat Locky. These families encrypt the data on a computer and then demand payment to unencrypt it. Although we don’t know for sure, it’s possible it was macro malware that was used in the holding of a Hollywood hospital for ransom last month. The banking Trojan Dridex, which allows attackers to steal banking credentials and other personal info from infected machines, also uses the technique. How to avoid it Fortunately, if you use security from F-Secure, you’re protected from these threats. But aside from that, the old advice still holds: Be wary of email attachments from senders you don’t know. And take care not to enable macros on documents you’ve received from sources you’re not 100% sure of. "Back to the Future" banner image courtesy of Garry Knight, flickr.com