Webcam Safety Threatened by Crooks and Spies

As online video usage grows, so does the risk of compromising your webcam safety: Internet Scambusters #424

If you use a camera connected to your computer, your webcam safety could be compromised by hackers and “peeping Tom” spies.

Even legally installed webcams that monitor activity in locations like vacation resorts and workplaces are vulnerable to misuse.

In this week’s issue, we explain how crooks gain control of or abuse webcam operations and what you can do to cut the dangers.

On to today’s main topic…

Webcam Safety Threatened by Crooks and Spies

Hackers, hijackers, spies and blackmailers may have put your webcam safety at risk, and you need to take action now against their prying eyes.

If you bought a laptop anytime in the past couple of years, you almost certainly have one of those little not-much-bigger-than-a-pinhole cameras above your screen.

Or, if you just happen to be one of those people who like to see who you’re talking to while online, you probably have a separate camera mounted on your monitor or close by.

And, of course, they’re useful for watching wildlife and invaluable for security monitoring. The Internet is teeming with sites featuring nesting box wireless webcam installations.

But while it might seem like fun and a fantastic piece of technology, especially for friends and relatives who want to connect when they’re apart, webcams also pose a huge and increasing threat to individual privacy and computer security.

We couldn’t find reliable, up-to-date figures for webcam usage but estimates suggest as many as 25% of all computer owners have webcams, even if they don’t all use them.

There are two principle privacy and security webcam safety risks.

Webcam Hijacking

Just as a hacker can gain control of your PC, so they can also take over your webcam, switching it on and off, taking photos and watching everything you do.

Mostly they breach your webcam safety to seize control via a Remote Access Trojan-type virus (fittingly abbreviated to RATs!) that you unknowingly download to your computer or that they manage to install when you leave it unattended.

But they might also be able to hack their way onto your PC if you’re connected to the Internet but don’t have security software, especially if you don’t have a firewall set up or you use an insecure network.

Using illegal web camera programs, hijacking has become increasingly common among users of online instant messaging services and you can actually see YouTube video demos of this happening.

The BBC also has a more general video of a RAT in action, including controlling a webcam. (Warning: An advertisement may run before the showing of this news report.)

A sick trick that targets chatroom visitors and dating sites involves crooks building up the trust of their intended victims during text chats.

Eventually they send a webcam to the victim, one thing leads to another, and the victim ends up behaving in a way they shouldn’t in front of a camera.

The crook then pounces and blackmails the victim with the threat of publishing recordings they made of their behavior.

How to increase your webcam safety:

  • Ensure you have up to date Internet security software installed. You can also get specialist webcam activity monitoring software (an example would be Zemana AntiLogger, which, as its name implies, also checks for keyboard logging programs, though we cannot vouch for its effectiveness).
  • Unplug the camera or cover the lens when not in use; many newer model webcams come with a privacy shield that slides across the lens.
  • Look for the camera’s operation light coming on when you’re not using it; this is by no means a failsafe — recent research suggests hackers using special web camera programs may be able to switch off the light.
  • If the camera is built-in but you don’t use it, disable it. It’s beyond the scope of this report to explain how to do this, but either find a good online tutorial such as About’s How to Disable a Webcam or get someone who knows how to do it disable it for you.
  • Don’t locate the camera anywhere where its usage might give away details of your location or provide other valuable information to thieves.
  • Don’t do anything in front of a camera that you wouldn’t mind the whole world seeing. Hackers may even be able to access your camera while you’re using it with someone else and record your actions.
  • Warn your kids!!! Tell them especially about the point above. Even some of their friends could be recording their behavior and comments, then posting them online. Consider disabling the camera or imposing some restrictions.

Webcam Spying

Naturally, a hijacking-type web camera program enables a criminal to spy on victims, but the use of these devices for secret observing is far more widespread than that.

For a start, there are legitimate devices, as we mentioned above, installed for security purposes in homes, stores, schools and workplaces.

Some of these, intentionally or not, are also connected to the Internet, putting webcam safety at risk.

In fact, the New York Times reported a couple of years back on a security camera monitoring a girls’ changing room at a school.

The computer server on which videos were stored was linked to the Internet.

Then, of course, there are literally thousands of public wireless webcams on highways, at vacation resorts and scores of other places that maybe we don’t think about when we visit these locations, but you can be sure hundreds of people log on to them every day.

Then there was the famous case in 2010 when a Pennsylvania school purposely installed software to remotely activate webcams on MacBook laptops so they could find them if they were lost or stolen.

Pupils were not told about it and some saw this web camera program as an invasion of privacy. Eventually, the FBI became involved.

Okay, and what about the cameras, hidden by crooks, that we don’t know about? For example: the ones that record us keying in our PIN numbers at ATMs, or, worse, hidden in places where we expect total privacy.

The point we’re making here is that pretty much wherever you go, there’s the possibility a camera is watching you.

Your key defenses for webcam safety here are to assume you’re being watched and, again, to conceal confidential information (like PIN number keying) and to behave in a way that you don’t mind other people seeing.

In the case of private places, from changing rooms to hotel suites, even though the likelihood is extremely low that you’re being spied on, it’s always worth taking a quick look around to check for suspicious objects or small holes which look like they don’t belong.

If you have any suspicions, guard your behavior. If you have anything like evidence of spying, tell the police.

Webcam hijacking and spying is an unsavory subject but it’s real. And as more and more of us choose to use video online and camera technology gets ever more sophisticated, expect to hear more of compromised webcam safety.

Time to close — we’re off to take a walk. See you next week.