In June of this year, Mark Zuckerberg posted a picture on Facebook to celebrate Instagram reaching half a billion active users. However, this milestone was quickly overshadowed when some eagle-eyed users noticed a piece of tape covering his webcam. Zuckerberg is clearly a lot more tech savvy than most people, so if he is concerned about webcam privacy, should you be too? After all, in April the director of the FBI, James Comey admitted during a talk at a University that he covers his webcam with tape too.
So what are they scared of?
Webcams have been a known target of malware for quite some time, there are multiple examples of malware designed specifically to target webcams. A Remote Access Tool or Trojan (RAT), is commonly used. A RAT enables an "operator" to remotely control a target computer over the internet. There are legitimate uses for RATs - they are commonly used in large schools and corporations where remote technical support is often required. However, used maliciously a RAT enables the "operator" to control your computer (including turning on your camera) and exploit it for their own gain.
Scarily, if somebody is keen to access your webcam, they don't need to create their own malware or be a tech genius - there are shady areas of the internet (known as the "dark web") where this software can be purchased.
One of the most notorious webcam hacking cases took place in 2013, when Miss Teen USA, Cassidy Wolf was watched for a year by a former classmate. She was spied on via the laptop in her bedroom, eventually the former classmate sent her images that he had obtained in an attempt to blackmail her. This was all made possible, using a piece of software he purchased called Blackshades. Blackshades is a RAT that was likely installed on her machine when an email was sent with an attachment or link that she opened.
Should you be worried?
It is fair to say that your everyday user is unlikely to be targeted. People like Zuckerberg and other major figures are more likely to be targetted as there is more to gain. Saying that, there are a few things that you can do to give yourself peace of mind and to reduce the chances of being hacked. A good comparison would be the way you secure your home. In the grand scheme of things, not every house is burgled - and the average person would not assume that their house was a key target, but most of us still lock our doors and set alarms.
Ways to protect yourself
As mentioned above, it's pretty unlikely that you'll be targetted, but it is worth taking steps to protect yourself, just to ensure that you don't leave yourself open to any opportunists. Listed below are some things that you can do to cover yourself:
- Firmware updates: Manufacturers and software providers will frequently release updates. These updated usually provide extra features - but they also tend to patch any security issues.
- Routine malware scans: Keeping your computer free of malware is one of the most important things you can do. Good anti-virus software such as ESET will detect and defend you against malware.
- Use a firewall: A firewall checks that incoming and outgoing traffic from your computer is legitimate.
- Choose Anti-Virus Software with webcam protection: ESET Internet Security will alert you when anyone tries to access your webcam.
- Cover it/unplug it/close it: Most laptops and a lot of monitors now have built-in cameras - so it's not as simple as just unplugging the device. However, you can always tape your camera (like Zuckerberg). If you regularly use your camera this can be a pain and can leave a sticky residue on the lens. Alternatively you could always purchase a webcam cover. If you are using a laptop, it's a good idea to get into the habit of closing it once you are done using it.
- Take notice of the light: The webcam light was implemented partially as a security feature - so that you know when the camera has been turned on. If the light comes on or blinks, it could suggest that something is wrong. However, it's evident that hackers can bypass this in some cases, but it is worth keeping an eye out.
- Beware of chatting to strangers: Often a stranger will send you a request on Skype, in an effort to get you to click on a link and download a trojan horse. They may also just try to get information from you to access your accounts. Never click on links, download files or open attachments that are sent to you by someone you don't know.
- Be careful what you click: Never click on suspicious links. Also, beware of shortened links on social media. Malware developers often use shortening services to try and mask the true identity of the site.
- Always assume it is on: It is a good idea to get into the habit of not doing anything in front of the camera, that you wouldn't do in front of a stranger. This is especially relevant to anyone that has a laptop or computer in their bedroom.
One thing that this highlights, is how easy it is for somebody to gain access to your computer (not just your webcam), and how important it is to ensure that you have a good quality anti-virus program to protect you. Here at Freeola we recommend ESET Internet Security, it has lots of extra features such as the webcam security to offer you complete peace of mind.
Unfortunately cyber threats are a real and present danger, from hacking passwords, phishing emails and even being spied on. The most sensible and reliable way to protect yourself from all of these threats is to invest in some decent antivirus software, regularly update your computer (and software) and to remain vigilant. A lot of cyber criminals are opportunists, so the best way to avoid being scammed is to make it as difficult as possible for them to target you.