During Jacob Appelbaum’s talk about how he suspected that Apple might be colluding with the NSA to enable the agency to spy on people, he spoke about how they could take control of your cell phones, saying “They would be able to break into this phone, almost certainly, and turn on the microphone” and that the NSA builds fake cell phone towers to grab and store data. One of the things that Edward Snowden revealed was that the NSA had the capability to remotely turn on the cameras in people’s computers so that they could spy on them.
All this triggered a memory that I have been toying with the idea of writing about for some time. A little over
two three years ago, my MacBook Pro started behaving oddly. The light that signified that the camera was on would come on without warning even though I was not using anything that required it. It sometimes went off on its own, at other times I would have to put the computer to sleep mode or shut it down to turn it off.
Needless to say, this was both annoying and disconcerting. I thought it may be a hardware problem since the computer was old and showing some of the quirky features that sometimes indicate a coming crash. As I was due for an upgrade, I got a MacBook Air and transferred all my old stuff to the new machine via my Time Machine backup.
I was surprised when the light problem immediately started happening on the new machine. The people at the Apple store tried wiping the disk and reinstalling the operating system but the light problem remained and they confessed themselves baffled and suggested that I contact Apple directly since it was still under warranty. So I did and explained the problem to the person whom I got on the line. After some failed attempts at trying to solve it, they transferred me to someone higher up.
The amazing thing was that I got some higher-level engineer who took a keen interest in my problem, saying that he had never heard of this before. He gave me his direct email address and phone number so that I could bypass the voicemail system, and over a period of weeks he got me to try out various things to help diagnose the problem. The main thing I had to do was to note exactly what I was doing when the light came on and report it to him and then implement whatever suggestions he offered based on that information. But we could not find a consistent identifiable trigger that caused the light to come on. Since I had to wait for the light to come on to report to him, days would sometimes go by without us communicating.
Then two things happened almost simultaneously. The light stooped appearing and when I told him after some time that the light seemed to be not coming on anymore, I got no reply and have never heard from him since. The light problem has never reappeared.
So was I being spied upon? It seems so unlikely that I was specifically targeted. I am not important enough to warrant it and not paranoid enough to feel that I am under constant observation. If it was not a hardware or software glitch that corrected itself and was actually NSA spying, I was likely just randomly selected to try out the system.
Of course, if for some reason my computer was being commandeered, then in order to keep their spying secret the NSA should also prevent the light from coming on. But I am wondering if what I experienced was an early attempt at spying before they figured out how to stop the camera light from coming on.
But whatever the reason, I now have a piece of masking tape covering the camera lens.