With improving technology comes many benefits, but also more ways to do harm. One evening this semester, I was in a cafe when the woman at the next table asked if I would watch her belongings while she went to the bathroom. I agreed and glanced over, noticing that her MacBook’s green webcam light was on. When she came back, I asked if she was on Skype. “No, it’s been on all the time for the last few weeks. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I hope nobody’s watching,” she said with a nervous laugh. In reality, it is almost certain that someone was watching that woman through her webcam, and chances are, it was the last person to service her laptop. It might sound paranoid, but there is definitely a precedent — a California-based computer technician was arrested in 2011 for installing peeping-tom software on the laptops women asked him to repair. According to the Huffington Post, one of the bogus error messages that would reportedly show on-screen encouraged users to “fix their internal sensor” by “putting your laptop near hot steam for several minutes,” prompting some female users to bring their open laptop into the bathroom with them when they showered.
It is incredibly easy to remotely activate someone’s webcam. The fear that someone is watching you through your laptop camera is sometimes dismissed as paranoia, but stories of remote spying are becoming more common each year. While paranoia is by definition irrational, healthy concern is not, and taking small steps to thwart a jealous ex or creepy IT guy is something everyone should do. A cheap, low-tech solution is to cover the webcam with a small sticker when not in use, which can be temporarily removed for
Wired Magazine reported that the FBI had opened an investigation into Lower Merion School District in Philadelphia, which had remotely activated the webcams on school-issued laptops, snapping pictures of students as they slept or were, according to a civil action, “partially undressed.” That the software could track students’ web habits and emails is worrying enough — the idea that these laptops were AV surveillance devices is doubly chilling. The laptops came with software allowing them to be remotely controlled, ostensibly to help in the recovery effort if they were stolen. Depending on the exact nature of the data collection and the pictures in question, the school district could have run afoul of child pornography laws.
The case ended with a $610,000 settlement, but the capabilities of stalkers and other hackers to surreptitiously access other computers have only improved since then. It is a low-tech solution, but given that this problem has occurred at least a half-dozen times in the last few years, covering your computer’s webcam is a simple precaution to take.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 27 print edition. Email Tommy Collison at [email protected]