Hack Attack: How To Keep Your Webcam Secure From Online Peeping Toms

Someone could be watching you through your webcam right now. Chances are you’re safe so don’t freak out, but you should be aware that the possibility exists. There was a time when webcam hacking wasn’t a mainstream thing, but times have changed and nowadays it’s a real threat that’s being put to the microscope thanks to spying programs like PRISM. If you have a webcam, it would behoove you to listen up.

What would you do if someone had control of your webcam without your knowledge? It’s a maddening thought, really, and one that I don’t particularly enjoy dwelling on. It would be one of the greatest violations of privacy, even more so than voicemail hacks and RFID hacks. Fortunately, there are ways to keep yourself clean from these online peeping Toms. Keep reading to find out how.

How Hackers Gain Access to Webcams

Webcams are a great piece of technology. Unfortunately, like most technological advancements, they can be twisted and abused to do things they were never meant to do. Sure, they’re great for keeping in touch with long-distance relationships, for performing online interviews, for chatting with friends, etc. But a hacked webcam becomes a spy tool that voyeurs can exploit for their own gain.

There are a few different kinds of webcam hacks that have occurred over the past few years,  but the general procedure is to find a security vulnerability (whether in the software that controls a webcam or the hardware itself) and take advantage of it in any way that doesn’t alert the victim to its use. Here are some examples.

beware   Hack Attack: How To Keep Your Webcam Secure From Online Peeping Toms

One technique, known as clickjacking, manipulates the rendering of a website to make it so that the Flash permission prompt becomes invisible. The website then places this invisible prompt over a likely-to-be-clicked section such as the Play button on a video. Suddenly, the victim thinks all they’re doing is watching a video, but has inadvertently given permission to the Flash app to start taking pictures.

Clickjacking can be an issue with the app protocol itself OR with the browser you’re using to view the said app. Some browsers, like Chrome, keep on top of these vulnerabilities and repair them as quickly as possible, but sometimes the issue can go unnoticed for a long time. Other times, the issue may appear to be fixed only to be rediscovered by exploiting some other vulnerability.

webcam hacks trendnet   Hack Attack: How To Keep Your Webcam Secure From Online Peeping Toms

Another type of vulnerability is the kind that exists in a particular brand or model of webcams. Back in 2012, TRENDnet was at the center of a scandal that involved thousands of webcams all across the world. Someone identified an issue with TRENDnet cameras that allowed anyone to tap into a live webcam’s video feed. Subsequently, a webpage went up (now defunct) that allowed any visitor to watch these compromised video feeds. How’s that for invasion of privacy?

Other types of webcam hack attacks include vicious malware and viruses, infected email attachments, or direct access attacks from someone who knows your IP address and can access your webcam remotely.

Protecting Yourself Against Webcam Hackers

In the example mentioned above, TRENDnet’s vulnerability came to light in early 2012 and they claimed that they’d fixed the issue within a few weeks. However, the issue was apparently still around in early 2013 — a full year later. It’s troubling when the manufacturer of webcams believes their products to be secure, claims that they’re secure, and those products turn out otherwise. It only proves the notion that we need to be vigilant as users to maximize our webcam privacy.

webcam hacks peeper   Hack Attack: How To Keep Your Webcam Secure From Online Peeping Toms

So what can you do to protect yourself against webcam takeovers?

  • Update firmware. Webcams, like most standalone electronic devices these days, are controlled by their firmware, and this is where vulnerabilities are most likely to crop up. Manufacturers will occasionally push out new firmware updates and, in general, it’s a good idea to stay up to date on those updates because they tend to patch bugs and holes.
  • Routine malware scans. Malware is a popular way for hackers to gain access to your computer, regardless of whether or not we’re talking about webcams. Keeping your computer clean of malware is one of the most important security steps you could ever take, so be diligent about it. I highly recommend Malwarebytes but there are other free malware removal tools that you can try.
  • Use firewalls. A firewall is one way to make sure the traffic going in and out of your computer is legitimate. An advanced hacker will be able to bypass a firewall, but it will provide adequate protection against most attacks.
  • Webcam protection software. There are programs out there that will reside in the background of your computer and notify you whenever your webcam is being used. This is a great way to stay safe since you don’t really have to do any extra work. I’ve never used any webcam protection software myself so I don’t have any I would personally recommend, but they do exist and they do work in theory.
  • Cover it, unplug it. If you’re lazy and you want to take the easy way out, you can always tape a piece of paper over your webcam when you aren’t using it. It can get a little annoying having to tape and re-tape it if you use your webcam regularly, but for those of you who just use it every once in a while, this could be the solution. An alternative would be to unplug it whenever you aren’t using it, but that wouldn’t work for built-in webcams such as those on laptops.
  • Stay alert. Usually, all webcams have an external light to indicate status. A blinking light when you are not using a webcam is a sign of something wrong. It could be that there’s something wrong electronically, but it pays to be on alert and take precautions.
  • Always assume the webcam is on. This piece of advice can get impractical at times, but it’s a good rule of thumb for most activities, for instance, if you are using your computer in the bedroom. Always close your laptop when you are not using it. Think of this one as a last resort tip.

Conclusion

Again, don’t freak out. Just because it’s possible for your webcam to be hacked doesn’t mean it’s likely to be hacked. At the same time, it’s never a bad idea to be cautious and aware of what sorts of dangers are lurking out there. Would you rather sit in ignorance until one day you stumble across a video of you doing something you didn’t want the world to see? If you ask me, it’s better to equip yourself and stay safe.

Image Credit: Clickjacking Proof of Concept, TRENDnet Snapshots, Peeper Via Shutterstock

The comments were closed because the article is more than 180 days old.

If you have any questions related to what's mentioned in the article or need help with any computer issue, ask it on MakeUseOf Answers—We and our community will be more than happy to help.

29 Comments -

1 votes

Emlyn Jones

Don’t almost all webcams have a light hardwired into the camera so you can see when its being used, obviously if its hardwired then this cannot be overcome by “hackers” unless they have local access to your hardware. I suppose this is still an issue if you have your webcam on all the time but for most of us its reassuring to know that its only working when you want it to. Of course for the more paranoid theres always tape or the iPatch (http://www.virtualspaceindustries.com/theipatch/)

0 votes

Igor R

or if your not using it…disable it through device menager…

0 votes

Howard B

@Igor: Some webcams, when disabled in Device Manager, wind up re-enabled when Windows restarts…don’t know why.

Aaron’s (and several other rent-to-own stores) used PC Rental Agent, installed on the laptops and PCs they rented, to spy on their clients; they only got caught when a client was called; they’d paid off their laptop, but the store neglected to mark it “paid in full.” When the store called to complain, the clients were told “We know you still have the laptop, and we have webcam photos to prove it!” Needless to say, the client filed a privacy lawsuit. http://arstechnica.com/security/2012/12/how-spyware-on-rental-pcs-captured-users-most-intimate-moments/

1 votes

Inge

Microsoft has a firmware update for the LifeCam Studio webcam which makes a pretty good job of protecting the camera from hijacking. Unfortunately it totally bricks the unit, and has been doing so for more than two years. How´s that for manufacturer responsibility?

http://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/forum/windows_7-hardware/lifecam-studio-stopped-working-after-firmware/40084234-42c1-40c7-96eb-4d1a30092709

0 votes

Sabry Krishnan L

OMG! I need to secure my cam right away….

0 votes

Rodrigo G

I think that half of the times you say “webcam” you mean “security cams”, even in the second image they are security cams….

You mentioned an issue with TRENDnet cameras, but there are vulnerabilities in almost every camera firmware….

Take a look at this presentation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8r15Ej_jP0
(From Hack In The Box Security Conference)

0 votes
1 votes

Samuel

I just tear a post-it note corner off and stick it over, when I need to use it, it’s still sticky, it only needs replacing every month or two & doesn’t get annoying as long as you have a stack of post-it’s at hand… I also put a jack-splitter into the microphone slot, and have completely removed all recognition for the laptop’s built in one so that even if I wanted I couldn’t get it working again, it’s really tinny anyway, most laptop mic’s are, if you don’t have a bucket load of recording equipment like me – it’s well worth buying a cheap external computer microphone, often they’re extremely clear and make life a lot easier – especially if you frequently use programs like Skype.

There’s my simple few options to amend the issue possibility, anyway :) Hope it helps someone!!

1 votes

dhv

Does this apply to the built-in cameras on iMacs and Macbooks?

If so, can hackers disable the little green light that tells you the cam is on?

1 votes

Sherry

Yup. I place a piece of Duck tape over my tablet cameras all the time, front and back. I never use them, so it just makes sense.

1 votes

Zhong

There was a time where this woman purchased a Mac from a hardware store and despite her permission, the webcam was feeding its data back to the owner at the store. Everything she does in front of the laptop was being monitored and captured by the person spying on her through the webcam.

Obviously the man configured the webcam in a way that installs a certain software and runs in the background that’ll send video data through the internet, all without being known.

0 votes

Brian

Please provide a link to your source.
Thanks.

1 votes
0 votes

Jim Gibson

My computer is so old (Windows Vista) I have a small camera on top of the tower unit but It is not fixed and the USB cable is so heavy in comparrison that it turns the camera around to face the wall. I have had many occasions when I have had to re install my operating system that I doubt the software still operates anyway.

0 votes

Jean-michel A

thank you but how do you password protect it in a way that only you and no one else monitors now that there is another issue reason why is my properties out of country is important that i monitor the ins and out of my household elderly relatives is very important and their happiness is a must for me … do they plan to take that in consideration often times it’s not perverts only that monitors but concerned family members …

0 votes

N8

It’s less work to just remember to smile and wave now and then. I appreciate the attention.

1 votes

N8

I think it’s less work to just remember to smile and wave now and then.
Frankly, I appreciate the attention.

1 votes

Kew

I made a small slot-on cover out of a loo roll.

1 votes

Camille

I have a webcam on my laptop which I never use, and since I don’t trust Windows 8 to disable my hardware I find masking tape is the best way to go – all you need is a tiny bit to cover the actual lens. It’s hardly noticeable and gives me peace of mind.

0 votes

Joel L

Yeah, tape is one way to make sure NOTHING is picked up by the camera!

1 votes

qwertyuiop

That’s why I Just don’t use a webcam ;-)

0 votes

Derek

http://www.securityguardians.com has products that help to protect you and your family from this crime. Thanks

0 votes

jelabarre

The very first webcam I saw on a system was on a Silicon Graphics Indy. Ant it had a SLIDE-OVER COVER!!!! Such a simple, effective and low-tech solution, and hack-proof as well. Is it really that hard for laptop-makers to do the same now?? Yeah, I know, the cost of it might diminsh the CEO’s donut and caviar budget and they’d have to “resource action” another couple thousand people to make up for it.

The hack is nothing new. I first heard of it 15 or so years ago when some unix folks told of someone’s webcam being activated while the victim was surfing porn. So WELL before ever having use of hardware with a webcam, I already knew of the risks. If you’re one of those people who mumbles your password when you log into something, those passwords can be compromised too.

0 votes

Max Bree

I really appreciate the last tip the best, “Always assume the web cam is on.” And as a commenter pointed out, if you like attention smile and wave now and then.

Tape can work, for someone like me that uses their web cam sometime a dedicated product like that from http://www.webcamerablocker.com looks and works much better.

This is something that women in particular need to be aware of. Miss Teen Usa was a recent victim of web cam hacking, and was blackmailed.

0 votes

dane aguilar

I guess this guy is getting paid by the word.

0 votes

Joel L

Unfortunately, I am not. That would be awesome if I were!

0 votes

Pulp

If you have a MacBook, you can use the iShutter http://www.ishutter.co
Kickstarter link: http://kck.st/1dfgJVX

0 votes

Shaun Stevin

Your webcam security is at stake! Hackers can secretly turn on your webcam and microphone to blow your online privacy to bits. But, there is a way to stop them
http://www.purevpn.com/blog/beefing-up-your-webcam-security-against-hackers/

0 votes

Anonymous

What about ipads iphones tablets ect