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.
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.
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.
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.
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.