David Papp Blog

Are you being watched? The bad side of webcams

Many people fall into two groups when it comes to Internet security: those who don’t care about it or those who care a little too much. While reaching a happy medium may seem difficult, it’s a task that’s very doable as long as you bother to stay up to date with current vulnerabilities. Past and recent news tells us that our webcams are vulnerable to hacking, so you’re probably wondering how seriously you should take those warnings. Should you be worried?

The Risks of Webcam Use
The benefits of using webcams to stay in touch with loved ones are priceless. However, the chances of people hacking into these devices and spying on you are a real risk. Laptops these days come equipped with a webcam already. You should definitely be aware that it can be hacked and that someone could be spying on you without your knowledge.

How Webcams Are Attacked
Many users get Trojan horse attacks by opening infected files or attachments, especially received by email. Doing this exposes your computer to malware which allows exploiters to control your PC remotely. To ensure you don’t fall victim to these vulnerabilities, here are some tips to remember:

  • Never open suspicious attachments. Prevention is always better than cure when it comes to your security. Think twice before clicking an odd attachment or those found in emails offering anything for “free”. Be sceptical of sources you’re not familiar with and stay vigilant.
  • Use a firewall. Whether you’re using Windows or Mac, your system should have a firewall installed. Make sure it’s turned on by checking your system properties.
  • Think twice before accepting tech help from strangers. This might seem like a given, but it’s easy to forget when you’re frustrated with your computer. Most people would jump at the chance when someone offers tech help, but make sure it’s someone you trust.
  • Check the indicator light. If you’re using an external webcam, they tend to emit a red light that indicates when it’s powered on. For computers with internal webcams, these mostly have LED indicators. Find out where these indicators are and check them periodically.

Ultimately there is a very easy fix, just cover that lens up! Put a piece of tape or a post-it note over it. I never understood why webcam and laptop manufacturers still haven’t designed a simple sliding panel to cover the lens when not in use. This helps ensure no one is looking when you are not using your webcam.

33 thoughts on “Are you being watched? The bad side of webcams”

  1. So it is possible for people to hack computer webcams. That’s great, I’m already paranoid about a number a things, but this does nothing to help it. It’s the fact that people could be watching me without my knowing exclusively; that probably happens in public a lot but it’s completely different.

    • Not only “it is possible” but you can already finds (and it’s ‘been happening for years now) sites that INDEX hacked webcams for you, so you won’t have to look around yourself.

      Would you like to watch what happens in a public bathroom somewhere at Tahiti? You now can! A beach in Greece? Yep, it’s there.

      …probably next to your own living room 🙂

      Hadn’t you heard of the awful problem with the cameras for the first Panasonic TVs with Skype support that could be hacked AND couldn’t be turned off, just disconnected? Yeah, “nice stuff”…

    • I had my webcam hacked a few years ago, and it was not fun. I had a laptop at the time, so the webcam was built in. The hacker kept on turning the camera on at random points during my use of the computer, and it was definitely annoying. I ended up covering the camera until I had it fixed.

  2. I think most people would give access to their webcams/computers by the whole “accepting help from strangers” thing. You’ll have older computer users think the person calling about a virus is legit and install a program allowing remote access, it’s a pretty big scam going on now.

    • Sorry, of course I meant “find”, but the melted caps on my keyboard don’t help my case 🙂

  3. I definitely agree with this article. I have told my daughter to make sure her laptop is closed or facing the wall when she’s getting dressed or not on it. To have your firewall up to date is very important. I was a victim of clicking on things, too. It added a tool bar that I could not get rid of and eventually my IT son had to just wipe the computer. I did get a new one in the meantime, but that sucked, you know, to not be able to get rid of something. It also wouldn’t let me go on sites and had this fake picture of an IT guy pop up. Be very cautious of pop up. I learned my lesson. And opening up mail that you’re not familiar with is a no brainer. Don’t do it.
    Thanks for an informative article.

    • That’s one of the reasons for the success of webmail services like GMail: because with them you don’t have to worry (that much) that something you opened will hijack your computer. If it tries, you’ll meet at least two or three windows asking you if you are SURE you want to grant it access to do its thing. You just have to… er… learn to “say no” to them 🙂

  4. Thanks for the reminder with this. I vaguely remember scanning over some story about this a few weeks ago – something about Russian hackers, if I’m not mistaken. I’m certainly still too lax with my security, though I have tightened up a bit having read some of these blog comments. I guess we’ve all got to stay eternally vigilant.

  5. This is so scary, and so very real. My ex fiance used to be really into hacking and all that nonsense. He’s told me stories of hacking into webcams, controlling computers, and getting all kinds of information about people. Basically just keep yourself knowledgeable on how to stay safe and don’t be a “click-er”! Clicking on random things on the internet always leads to some kind of trouble, haha.

  6. My camera has a light so I’m not too worried about it. My parents are really paranoid about being spied on (due to news reports) and I always dismissed their concerns but I’ve come to realize that it is a legitimate problem that everyone should be aware of. Hope to never have issues with a security problem like this.

  7. There is another problem with webcams: they have microphones too in addition to lens. It doesn’t matter if you tape down or shut the lens somehow, if the hackers can still take over the camera and use its microphone to listen in on you.

  8. I like to keep my webcam either covered with tape or disable/uninstall the driver. Doing either/both of those things will basically eliminate your chance of being watched or whatever through your webcam.

  9. I definitely agree that a slide-cover lens would be a very wise decision in the part of manufacturers! However, for a vast majority of the public who does not pay much attention to the dangers of the Internet, it would probably be another nuisance that could possibly detract from sales. However, the dangers are very real, and I recommended all my friends to at least put post-its on top of their webcams if they didn’t want to install extra firewalls, especially as there are hacking methods now that can gain access to webcams without turning the tell-tale indicator lights on.

  10. I cant imagine a situation where someone could use my webcam. There was the big fuss about the Xbox One when it came out and people crying over the camera always being on and them being watched. Unless you install software to allow it then it won’t happen. Just be careful with what you download and don’t let anyone else have control of your computer and you will be just fine.

  11. I have friends who are really worried about this (I don’t have a webcam connected, so it’s sort of academic for me). While I admit the risk of it happening is non-zero, I have to say, I think keeping your computer secure (anti-virus, not clicking on random attachments, anti-malware, etc.) probably negates most of the risk. And I think there are way better reasons to keep your computer secure than worrying about someone, somewhere, possibly watching you.
    I’d personally be a lot more worried about keyloggers when accessing my financial info than I would be someone possibly watchin’ my goofy face while I stream 15 hours of 24 on Netflix. 😉

  12. Gotta say, it’s actually a pretty scary thought having some random person looking at you at all times.
    I recently got a webcam but fortunately it has a pretty strong blue LED light in the front so I know when it’s active.

    I do strongly agree about the sliding lens cover thing though, I mean that has to be an easy thing to implement.

    • And what if the LED stops working, or, worst case scenario, if there’s a way in the cameras firmware for the hacker to disable it? Then you won’t be able to realize if it’s working or not.

      The only way to be really sure is to cover the thing up, someway, and even then, who says a hacker won’t find a way to just use its mic to eavesdrop? It’s even better if you just unplug the thing whenever you aren’t actively using it.

      • The chance of an LED not even working is kinda low, especially if it isn’t used often. And most webcams have the LEDs power up when the webcam gets power to send a feed, rather than have it turn on with control of the board. So yeah, the mic could be one of the things that could be used to eavesdrop on people, but that’s about it. But a microphone won’t even help with much, especially if you can’t see what the person is even doing. You can hear in on conversations at most, but that’s it. And even then, how many people really do have that many important conversations in front of their computers?

    • +1 for the sliding lens cover, long overdue for webcam security. Since the attacker only have remote access, a minimal level of local (physical) security should do the trick. Some attackers think they have all the power, when in reality simply unplugging your system from the net cuts all they have to zero.

      A physical lens seems the way to go.

  13. I read somewhere that in some laptop models, it is actually possible for hackers and viruses to turn off the notification light of the webcam. A slide cover to physically block it would be a great idea! It can even replace the notification light.

  14. The slide panel idea is a great one, maybe they should start making some kind of decorated covers for them as well. Some of the new Dell computers come with a face recognition log in, I had to completely remove the program from my child’s school computer because I had not set it up and the program kept turning on the webcam randomly. It was making me nervous, and it was very annoying. I keep my laptops closed when not on them, and I keep a close watch on the light while I am on them.

    • I honestly don’t think they’ll be introducing slide panels anytime soon, mostly because they don’t see this such a big threat and can’t reply profit too much by adding it. It’s as simple as that, I believe, I mean, I’m not sure I’d be willing to pay a little extra for a slide panel 😉

      I think the solution is quite simple: close the laptop when not in use and keep checking the light! Which is exactly what you are doing 😀

  15. I feel like there’s a third category: sane people who understand the necessity of privacy and security precautions to protect our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I tend to turn my webcam off when I’m not using it. I have a Macbook so it’s built-in, and I’d hope that I’m not being spied on. However, I really have nothing to hide so it’s not that big of a deal should it get hacked.

  16. Thankfully, I always point it up to the ceiling when I don’t use it and I also unplug it. It would be quite obvious if someone started using my webcam. It has a bright blue light on top of it. I could even read next to it in darkness. I don’t even know why I have a webcam, last time I used it was months ago.

  17. My lack of understanding about video content may have prevented me from learning more about how videos are being used to track. Traditionally, videos have presented themselves as the primary method of advertising, but not subject to spam. It sounded like it’s just a matter of copyright (and addressed as such) not a matter of security.

  18. I don’t trust anyone when it comes to this and this is my exact number one fear. I constantly keep a paper or sticker over top of my webcam to make sure that no one is watching. It is so disgusting that there are people like that in today’s world and we have to worry about things like that.

  19. Being a computer user for years and being quite skilled with computers I have never really encountered this kind of problem myself before, however I can see how this works out.

    While I agree with the article it seems that your above average user would not be affected by this. Even if I did get infected by a malicious software it would probably not be that big of a problem because I know how to repair the computer and/or restore it.

    You do make valid points though like I stated e.g having a lens would make paranoid users less paranoid. You also give good tips.

    Thanks for sharing this post with us, keep up the good work.

  20. Good thing I don’t have a webcam anymore, I always was suspicious about the laptop webcam though. About the lens thing, I totally agree, I think some webcams do have that already, but they should all have them. There are also RAT programs that are harder to detect that takes over just the webcam, not the entire computer. I would suggest the same thing, if you have a webcam, when not using it just cover it with something.

  21. I have a strip of tape over my laptop’s camera as I’m typing this, lol. I’ve been doing this ever since I found out that there are creeps who for whatever reason, record people through their webcams. I honestly don’t trust websites such as Chatroulette and Omegle because I don’t know what the other person is doing. They could be recording me, or using a fake recording of another person, which is downright creepy.

    • Oh yeah, actually there is a software that can allow people to broadcast the web cam recording of someone else. So who knows, maybe some of them do record people while ”chatting” over there, then use it for something more sinister. I’m glad I no longer use that kind of web sites!

  22. Whilst using a webcam can present a risk, simply using your common sense is definitely the best way to avoid this. The suggestions you make are simply things we should be doing to stay secure in general and it is good to get an occasional reminder.

  23. I never knew this to be honest. The idea that someone can be watching you scares me, even though I never do anything bad. Maybe webcam manufacturers should look into this more. For security and privacy reasons it might be dangerous for the user.

  24. Someone told me about this a while ago, and to be honest I haven’t stopped to think about it, that is why I keep always keep my laptop closed when I’m not using. Just because you never know who could be watching you! I mean, someone stole my credit card number some years ago so easily and I had only used it in one site! A site that was supposed to be so reputable, still someone stole it! Quite scary!

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