In 2014, a single website broadcast live feeds from 4,591 webcams, CCTV cameras, and other devices in the U.S., as a part of a worldwide hack that affected 250 countries. The Russian-based site even showed live footage from baby monitors in children’s bedrooms.
The site broadcasting these feeds was eventually shut down, but what is of more interest is how hackers were able to literally peer into people’s homes and bedrooms in the first place.
The answer–the vast majority of those hacked had feeble or zero password protection.
It was that simple. So simple, actually, that the site’s administrator didn’t even consider himself a hacker at all, as the cameras being turned against their owners had such poor protection.
So it seems you’re right to worry about the security of your webcam or built-in laptop camera. But, just as gaining control of a webcam can be as simple trying the password 123ABC, protecting yourself is also an easy task.
To Access Your Webcam, Hackers First Need Your Computer
To be clear, it’s not your webcam that’s getting hacked, although that’s how many people imagine it happens, it’s your computer. You can’t hack into a webcam.
Once a hacker–or the government, if you want to head down that path–has access to your computer they can start meddling with all sorts of programs on your hard drive, including the ones that control your cameras.
And while we’re all pretty familiar with the most common ways hackers get into our personal devices, we’re still blundering into the same old traps.
Typically we open up ourselves to attack by having poor internet security and by opening emails or accessing websites riddled with viruses. Many of these hacks are basically our own fault. Despite all the warnings about email scams, almost a quarter of people who receive a scam email will open it, and more than 10% will voluntarily download the Trojan horse attachments that invite hackers right into the heart of their digital lives.
So step one in webcam protection is get yourself a decent internet security setup, and stop being so eager to open suspect email. Step two is to begin thinking about securing your actual webcam.
Tape Is Not a Security Device
With quality, properly maintained security on your computer you should start to find peace of mind online. However, if you still get a queasy feeling every time you walk past your laptop, or glance at your webcam, there are more steps you can take.
Those steps do not need to include covering your camera with tape.
A recent survey by computer security firm Kaspersky found that about 40% of respondents physically blocked their camera’s lens with either duct tape, a band-aid, or a sticky note.
That’ll prevent someone looking out at you through your webcam, but it does so in much the same way that removing your car’s tires every time you park will prevent it from being stolen.
Who wants to remove and reapply a band-aid to their webcam every time they make a video call? Not to mention that your virtual image is almost certainly going to be obscured in a haze of tape residue unless you’re willing to go clean the lens every time.
But hey, it’s the protection of choice for Mark Zuckerburg and FBI Director James Comey, so you’re hardly alone if you trust that sticky note to stay in place all the working day long. But there are better ways to obscure an unwanted viewer’s gaze.
How to Keep Your Webcam Secure
If you’re using an external webcam, and you don’t want to keep physically unplugging it after every video call (although this is one easy way to prevent hanky-panky with your webcam), you can employ a unit that comes with its own privacy shutter.
These simple little plastic covers might be low-tech, but they’re also the simplest and most sensible way to deal with potential hackers. Using them is easier than putting the cap back on the toothpaste, and far more likely to prevent you from becoming a live internet sensation as you sing along to Spotify while working.
If you’re worried about a built-in camera, and perhaps if you’re not a frequent video caller, you can disable the device altogether. You can do so from your desktop by accessing the operating system controls or the device manager. Or disable your internal, built-in camera and use an external USB webcam with a privacy shutter instead. Chances are, the video and audio quality will be much better anyway.
Either way the webcam security solution is very simple.
Just unplug it, disable it, or pop a lid on it.
Oh, and if your next webcam comes with password protection–and many units with remote access technology do–put a little thought into the password you choose. The average hacker isn’t going to find you a particularly attractive target, unless you make yourself a particularly easy one.