Confounding that spying webcam: Low-tech tips for peace of mind

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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.

Should I Be Worried?

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:

Pre-installed software

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.

Trojans

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.

Direct interference

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.

How to Secure Your Webcam

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….

Tape.

webcam covered with tape

Or Post-It notes (some students in the spycam laptop case reportedly used this as well).

webcam covered with a Post-It note

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

Itiro

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