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
F-Secure Labs reported this week on a new WhatsApp scam that’s successfully spammed over 22,000 people. Spam seems to be as old as the Internet itself, and is both a proven nuisance AND a lucrative source of revenue for spammers. Most people don’t see what goes on behind the scenes, but spammers often employ very sophisticated schemes that can expose web surfers to more than just ads for Viagara or other “magic beans”. Spam typically tries to drive Internet traffic by tricking people into clicking certain websites, where scammers can bombard unsuspecting web surfers with various types of advertising. Profit motives are what keep spammers working hard to circumvent spam blocks, white lists, and other protective measures that people use to try and fight back – and it can pay off. Numerous spammers have been indicted and suspected of generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from their spam campaigns, with one study projecting that spammers could generate in excess of 3.5 million dollars annually. While most spam circulates via e-mail, the popularity of services like WhatsApp is giving spammers new resources to exploit people, and new ways to make money. Here’s a few ways spammers and cyber criminals are using WhatsApp to make money off users: Following Malicious Links: One way that cyber criminals use WhatsApp to scam people is to trick them into following malicious links. For example, a recent scam sent SMS messages to WhatsApp users telling them to follow a link to update the app. But the message was not from WhatsApp, and the link didn’t provide them with any kind of update. It signed them up for an additional service, and added a hefty surcharge to victims' phone bills. Sending Premium Rate Messages: Premium rate SMS sending malware was recently determined by F-Secure Labs to be the fastest growing mobile malware threat, and WhatsApp gives cyber criminals a new way to engage in this malicious behavior. Basically the users receive a message that asks them to send a response – “I’m writing to you from WhatsApp, let me know here if you are getting my messages”, “Get in touch with me about the second job interview”, and various sexual themed messages have all been documented. Responding to these messages automatically redirects your message through a premium rate service. Spanish police claim that one gang they arrested made over 5 million euros using this scheme – leaving everyday mobile phone users to foot the bill. Manipulating Web Traffic: A lot of spam tries to direct web traffic to make money off advertising. As you might imagine, this means they have to get massive numbers of people to look at the ads they’re using for their scams. Scammers use WhatsApp to do this by using the app to spread malware or social engineer large numbers of people to visit a website under false pretenses. F-Secure Labs found that people were being directed to a website for information on where they could get a free tablet. In March there was a global spam campaign claiming people could test the new WhatsApp calling feature. Both cases were textbook scams, and instead of getting new tablets or services, the victims simply wasted their time spreading misleading spam messages and/or exposing themselves to ads. WhatsApp and other services are great for people, but like any new software, requires a bit of understanding to know how to use. Hopefully these points give WhatsApp users a heads up on how they can avoid spam and other digital threats, so they can enjoy using WhatsApp to chat with their friends. [ Image by Julian S. | Flickr ]
Espionage – it’s not just for James Bond type spies anymore. Cyber espionage is becoming an increasingly important part of global affairs, and a threat that companies and organizations handling large amounts of sensitive data are now faced with. Institutions like these are tempting targets because of the data they work with, and so attacks designed to steal data or manipulate them can give attackers significant advantages in various social, political and industrial theaters. F-Secure Labs’ latest malware analysis focuses on CozyDuke – an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) toolkit that uses combinations of tactics and malware to compromise and steal information from its targets. The analysis links it to other APTs responsible for a number of high-profile acts of espionage, including attacks against NATO and a number of European government agencies. CozyDuke utilizes much of the same infrastructure as the platforms used in these attacks, effectively linking these different campaigns to the same technology. “All of these threats are related to one another and share resources, but they’re built a little bit differently to make them more effective against particular targets”, says F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan. “The interesting thing about CozyDuke is that it’s being used against a more diverse range of targets. Many of its targets are still Western governments and institutions, but we’re also seeing it being used against targets based in Asia, which is a notable observation to make”. CozyDuke and its associates are believed to originate from Russia. The attackers establish a beachhead in an organization by tricking employees into doing something such as clicking a link in an e-mail that distracts users with a decoy file (like a PDF or a video), allowing CozyDuke to infect systems without being noticed. Attackers can then perform a variety of tasks by using different payloads compatible with CozyDuke, and this can let them gather passwords and other sensitive information, remotely execute commands, or intercept confidential communications. Just because threats like CozyDuke target organizations rather than individual citizens doesn’t mean that they don’t put regular people at risk. Government organizations, for example, handle large amounts of data about regular people. Attackers can use CozyDuke and other types of malware to steal data from these organizations, and then use what they learn about people for future attacks, or even sell it to cyber criminals. The white paper, penned by F-Secure Threat Intelligence Analyst Artturi Lehtiö, is free and available for download from F-Secure’s website. [ Image by Andrew Becraft | Flickr ]
Malware is an omniscient threat – it’s present even when people don’t realize it. Understanding the threat is a key component of protecting yourself and your devices, and nothing drives that point home like cold hard facts and comprehensive research. F-Secure just released its latest Threat Report, which provides important insights into contemporary digital threats. The report details the various changes and trends in the digital threat landscape using data collected during the 2nd half of 2014. The threat report is full of important information, and it’s worth checking out to get some ideas about what attackers are cooking up. Trends like social media malware, exploits, and ransomware are detailed in the report. But there’s tons of important information people should be aware of, and so we put together an infographic to give you a quick overview of the report. The report provides lots more information about the threats, incidents, and trends that were prominent in the latter half of 2014. There's also some insightful words penned by F-Secure security researchers to give you a little context about why you need to arm yourself with knowledge to defend yourself against digital threats. You can download the full threat report for free from F-Secure’s website.