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
This year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) is coming up next week. The annual Barcelona-based tech expo features the latest news in mobile technologies. One of the biggest issues of the past year has enticed our own digital freedom fighter Mikko Hypponen to participate in the event. Hypponen, a well-known advocate of digital freedom, has been defending the Internet and its users from digital threats for almost 25 years. He’s appearing at this year’s MWC on Monday, March 2 for a conference session called “Ensuring User-Centred Privacy in a Connected World”. The panel will discuss and debate different ways to ensure privacy doesn’t become a thing of the past. While Hypponen sees today’s technologies as having immeasurable benefits for us all, he’s become an outspoken critic of what he sees as what’s “going wrong in the online world”. He’s spoken prominently about a range of these issues in the past year, and been interviewed on topics as diverse as new malware and cybersecurity threats, mass surveillance and digital privacy, and the potential abuses of emerging technologies (such as the Internet of Things). The session will feature Hypponen and five other panelists. But, since the event is open to public discussion on Twitter under the #MWC15PRIV hashtag, you can contribute to the conversation. Here’s three talking points to help you get started: Security in a mobile world A recent story broken by The Intercept describes how the American and British governments hacked Gemalto, the largest SIM card manufacturer in the world. In doing so, they obtained the encryption keys that secure mobile phone calls across the globe. You can read a recent blog post about it here if you’re interested in more information about how this event might shape the discussion. Keeping safe online It recently came to light that an adware program called “Superfish” contains a security flaw that allows hackers to impersonate shopping, banking, or other websites. These “man-in-the-middle” attacks can be quite serious and trick people into sharing personal data with criminals. The incident highlights the importance of making sure people can trust their devices. And the fact that Superfish comes pre-installed on notebooks from the world’s largest PC manufacturer makes it worth discussing sooner rather than later. Privacy and the Internet of Things Samsung recently warned people to be aware when discussing personal information in front of their Smart TVs. You can get the details from this blog post, but basically the Smart TVs voice activation technology can apparently listen to what people are saying and even share the information with third parties. As more devices become “smart”, will we have to become smarter about what we say and do around them? The session is scheduled to run from 16:00 – 17:30 (CET), so don’t miss this chance to join the fight for digital freedom at the MWC. [Image by Hubert Burda Media | Flickr]
Ordinary people here in Finland have been confronted with yet another cybersecurity acronym lately, DoS. And this does not mean that retro-minded people are converting back to the pre-Windows operating system MS-DOS that we used in the eighties. Today DoS stands for Denial of Service. This case started on New Year’s Eve when customers of the OP-Pohjola bank experienced problems withdrawing cash from ATMs and accessing the on-line bank. The problems have now continued with varying severity for almost a week. What happens behind the scene is that someone is controlling a large number of computers. All these computers are instructed to bombard the target system with network traffic. This creates an overload situation that prevents ordinary customers from accessing the system. It’s like a massive cyber traffic jam. The involved computers are probably ordinary home computes infected with malware. Modern malware is versatile and can be used for varying purposes, like stealing your credit card number or participating in DoS-attacks like this. But what does this mean for me, the ordinary computer user? First, you are not at risk even if a system you use is the victim of a DoS-attack. The attack cannot harm your computer even if you try to access the system during the attack. Your data in the target system is usually safe too. The attack prevents people from accessing the system but the attackers don’t get access to data in the system. So inability to use the system is really the only harm for you. Well, that’s almost true. What if your computer is infected and participates in the attack? That would use your computer resources and slow down your Internet connection, not to speak about all the other dangers of having malware on your system. Keeping the device clean is a combination of common sense when surfing and opening attachments, and having a decent protection program installed. So you can participate in fighting DoS-attacks by caring for your own cyber security. But why? Who’s behind attacks like this and what’s the motive? Kids having fun and criminals extorting companies for money are probably the most common motives right now. Sometimes DoS-victims also accuse their competitors for the attack. But cases like this does always raise interesting questions about how vulnerable our cyber society is. There has been a lot of talk about cyber war. Cyber espionage is already reality, but cyber war is still sci-fi. This kind of DoS-attack does however give us a glimpse of what future cyber war might look like. We haven’t really seen any nations trying to knock out another county’s networks. But when it happens, it will probably look like this in greater scale. Computer-based services will be unavailable and even radio, TV, electricity and other critical services could be affected. So a short attack on a single bank is more like an annoyance for the customers. But a prolonged attack would already create sever problems, both for the target company and its customers. Not to talk about nation-wide attacks. Cyber war might be sci-fi today, but it is a future threat that need to be taken seriously. Safe surfing, Micke Image by Andreas Kaltenbrunner.
“Sorry for the inconvenience, I'm in Limassol, Cyprus. I am here for a week and I just lost my bag containing all my important items, phone and money at the bus station. I need some help from you. Thanks” Many of you have seen these messages and some of you already know what the name of the game is. Yes, it’s another type of Internet scam, an imposter scam variant. I got this message last week from a photo club acquaintance. Or to be precise, the message was in bad Swedish from Google translate. Here’s what happened. First I got the mail. Needless to say, I never suspected that he was in trouble in Limassol. Instead I called him to check if he was aware of the scam. He was, I wasn’t the first to react. Several others had contacted him before me and some were posting warnings to his friends on Facebook. These scams start by someone breaking in to the victim’s web mail, which was Gmail in this case. This can happen because of a bad password, a phishing attack, malware in the computer or a breach in some other system. Then the scammer checks the settings and correspondence to find out what language the victim is using. The next step is to send a message like the above to all the victim’s contacts. The victim had reacted correctly and changed the Gmail password ASAP. But I wanted to verify and replied to the scam mail anyway, asking what I can do to help. One hour later I got this: “Thanks, I need to borrow about 1000 euros, will pay you back as soon as I get home. Western Union Money Transfer is the fastest option to wire funds to me. All you need to do is find the nearest Western Union shop and the money will be sent in minutes. See details needed WU transfer below. Name: (Redacted) Address: Limassol, Cyprus you must email me the reference number provided on the payment slip as soon as you make the transfer so I can receive money here. Thank you,” Now it should be obvious for everyone how this kind of scam works. Once the scammers get the reference number they just go to Western Union to cash in. Most recipients will not fall for this, but the scammers will get a nice profit if even one or two contacts send money. But wait. To pull this off, the scammers need to retain control over the mail account. They need to send the second mail and receive the reference number. How can this work if the victim had changed his password? This works by utilizing human’s inability to notice tiny details. The scammers will register a new mail account with an address that is almost identical to the victim’s. The first mail comes from the victim’s account, but directs replies to the new account. So the conversation can continue with the new account that people believe belongs to the victim. The new address may have a misspelled name or use a different separator between the first and last names. Or be in a different domain that is almost the same as the real one. The two addresses are totally different for computers, but a human need to pay close attention to notice the difference. How many of you would notice if a mail address changes from say Bill.Gates@gmail.com to BiII_Gates@mail.com? (How many differences do you notice, right answer at the end?) To be honest, I was sloppy too in this case and didn’t at first see the tiny difference. In theory it is also possible that webmail servers may leave active sessions open and let the scammers keep using the hacked account for a while after the password has been changed. I just tested this on Gmail. They close old sessions automatically pretty quickly, but it is anyway a good idea to use the security settings and manually terminate any connection the scammers may have open. I exchanged a couple of mails with this person the day after. He told that the scammers had changed the webmail user interface to Arabic, which probably is a hint about where they are from. I was just about to press send when I remembered to check the mail address. Bummer, the scammer’s address was still there so my reply would not have reached him unless I had typed the address manually. The account’s reply-to was still set to the scammer’s fake account. OK, let’s collect a checklist that helps identifying these scams. If someone asks for urgent help by mail, assume it’s a scam. These scams are a far more common than real requests for help. We are of course all ready to help friends, but are YOU really the one that the victim would contact in this situation? Are you close enough? How likely is it that you are close enough, but still had no clue he was travelling in Cyprus? Creating urgency is a very basic tool for scammers. Something must be done NOW so that people haven't got time to think or talk to others. The scammers may or may not be able to write correct English, but other languages are most likely hilarious Google-translations. Bad grammar is a strong warning sign. Requesting money using Western Union is another red flag. Wire transfer of money provides pretty much zero security for the sender, and scammers like that. Many scammers in this category try to fake an embarrassing situation and ask the recipient to not tell anyone else, to reduce the risk that someone else sees through it. These messages often state that the phone is lost to prevent the recipient from calling to check. But that is exactly what you should do anyway. Next checklist, how to deal with a situation where your account has been hijacked and used for scams. Act promptly. Change the mail account’s passwords. Check the webmail settings and especially the reply-to address. Correct any changed settings. Check for a function in the web mail that terminates open sessions from other devices. Gmail has a “Secure your account” -wizard under the account’s security settings. It’s a good idea to go through it. Inform your friends. A fast Facebook update may reach them before they see the scammer’s mail and prevent someone from falling for it. It also helps raising awareness. And finally, how to not be a victim in the first place. This is really about account security basics. Make sure you use a decent password. It’s easier to maintain good password habits with a password manager. Activate two-factor authentication on your important accounts. I think anyone’s main mail account is important enough for it. Learn to recognize phishing scams as they are a very common way to break into accounts. Maintain proper malware protection on all your devices. Spyware is a common way to steal account passwords. The last checklist is primarily about protecting your account. But that’s not the full picture. Imagine one of your friends falls for the scam and loses 1000 € when your account is hacked. It is kind of nice that someone cares that much about you, but losing money for it is not nice. Yes, the criminal scammer is naturally the primarily responsible. And yes, people who fall for the scam can to some extent blame themselves. But the one with the hacked account carries a piece of responsibility too. He or she could have avoided the whole incident with the tools described above. Caring about your account security is caring about your friends too! And last but not least. Knowledge is as usual the strongest weapon against scams. They work only as long as there are people who don’t recognize the scam pattern. Help fighting scam by spreading the word! Safe surfing, Micke PS. The two mail addresses above have 3 significant differences. 1. The name separator has changed from a dot to an underscore. 2. The domain name is mail.com instead of gmail.com. 3. The two lower case Ls in Bill has been replaced with capital I. Each of these changes is enough to make it a totally separate mail address. Image by Yumi Kimura