Tactical Information Systems
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Identity & Technology

Tactical Information Systems Blog

Online Privacy: Is Your Webcam Spying On You?

Our BeehiveID product uses either your laptop/desktop webcam, or your phone's camera to record a selfie video. We're always concerned about ensuring online privacy, so I wanted to talk a little bit about the privacy aspects of webcams. You may have noticed that your webcam has an activity light that tells you that it is working. On a desktop webcam, it might look something like this: (blue light)

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On a laptop, it is usually a little more subtle, something like this:

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But you may not know that most browsers will also tell you as well, with a red dot on a tab that is currently using your webcam, like this:

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All of these things are to ensure that you know when your webcam is being used. However, it is important to note that just because your webcam is on, it it not necessarily transmitting anything. It just means it is active. But it is safe to act as if it is transmitting when it is on, because you never know. Well-behaved programs and sites, like BeehiveID, release access to your webcam as soon as they are done.

But what about malicious programs/malware? That's a totally different story. Malware has the ability to activate your webcam without turning on your camera light. This enables malicious hackers to spy on you without your knowledge. It isn't just hackers, though. The FBI also does this:

"The most powerful FBI surveillance software can covertly download files, photographs and stored e-mails, or even gather real-time images by activating cameras connected to computers"

Miss Teen USA 2013 was the victim of a "sextortion" scam when an acquaintance surreptitiously accessed her webcam.

To be clear, if you have this kind of malware you probably have bigger problems than just your webcam. This kind of malware only works when it has complete and total access to your machine, which means it can log your keystrokes, see what is on your screen, use your computer to launch attacks - if effects everything.

Some Apple laptops have a slightly different webcam architecture. On those devices, the LED camera indicator isn't controlled by software, it is part of the power circuit. In other words, if the camera has power, the LED has to be on. If more companies did this, cameras would be much more secure.

So how can you be sure your webcam is secure? I wish I had something good for you, but I don't. Some people put tape over their camera when they aren't using it. That will certainly work, but will get goo on your lens and make it hard for us here with BeehiveID. It also won't block the microphone from working. You may be able to disable the webcam entirely in your BIOS, but that is a nuclear option that will disable it completely.

The only real answer is to keep prompting hardware manufacturers to make more secure webcam hardware, and to keep your virus/malware scans up to date. As long as you don't have malware you are safe. After that, you just have to accept that having a PC on a network carries some element of risk, and avoid working while naked.