Computer cameras as spying devices


My attention was drawn to this newspaper article about how more and more people are covering up the cameras that are in their computers out of concern that other people could, unbeknownst to them, actually turn them on and spy on them. This fact has been known for some time to computer security experts but was given greater publicity by Edward Snowden as part of his expose of how the NSA and other government agencies spy on people.

This story struck a chord with me because some years ago, long before this became a hot topic of public discussion, I used to find that the camera light on my Mac laptop would come on for seemingly no reason and then go off similarly. This bothered me because I thought that this signaled a problem in either the hardware or software and was the precursor to the computer crashing. I tried the university technical people and the local Apple store but they could not find anything wrong and suggested that I contact the Apple company. So I called them and reported the problem.

The people who answered the phone could not help me and they kept passing me up the chain until I got to an engineer and he was keenly interested, so much so that he did something unusual with companies in that he gave me his direct email address and phone number so that I could bypass the phone tree to reach him. He told me to try various things and report back to him and also let him know if there was any correlation between the light coming on and any other thing that I was doing at that time.

We went back and forth for some time but could not figure out what was wrong. At that point it dawned on me that maybe the problem was that the camera was being turned on by someone else and so I covered it with a bit of tape, creating some amusement for the people who noticed it. For some time the light kept going on and off but soon that stopped. I wondered whether it was because the person who may have been spying on me (who knows for what reason because I am hardly attractive to look at and my room is a standard office not worth observing) had realized that there was nothing more to see or had figured out how to turn on the camera without the light appearing, something that we now know can be done.

What amused me in the linked article was that James Comey, the head of the FBI, also puts a piece of tape over his camera but it was not because his own security people had alerted him to the problem but, as he told an audience, “I put a piece of tape over the camera because I saw somebody smarter than I am had a piece of tape over their camera.”

It now appears that people are marketing items that can be used to cover the cameras.

Yet the surveillance age has inspired an odd cottage industry battling against this trend: a glut of cheap stickers and branded plastic slides designed to cover up the front-facing cameras on phones, laptops and even televisions.

Covering cameras isn’t new for those who know that the internet is always watching. Eva Galperin, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that since she bought her first laptop with a built-in camera on the screen, a MacBook Pro, in 2007, she’s been covering them up.

EFF started printing its own webcam stickers in 2013, as well as selling and handing out camera stickers that read: “These removable stickers are an unhackable anti-surveillance technology.”

Of course, computer cameras are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our own devices being used to spy on us.

In a hearing on Capitol Hill in February, the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, acknowledged how the so-called “internet of things” could be used “for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials”.

I think it is a worthwhile precaution to cover the camera. If you are doing it, I suggest that you cover the camera with an ordinary piece of paper and then put tape over the paper. If you put the tape directly over the camera, then the gum gets on the lens so that you have to clean it off if you want to ever use the camera again.

Comments

  1. NYC atheist says

    “I put a piece of tape over the camera because I saw somebody smarter than I am had a piece of tape over their camera.”

    Or maybe he knows very well how easily they can be hacked. Like maybe his own agency does it regularly.

  2. hyphenman says

    Mano,

    I have kept tape over my camera, and a “snapped off” micro jack in the microphone jack of my laptops for years.

    You may remember 12 or 15 years ago when Beachwood gave Apple laptops to the incoming class of freshman only to later discover that one of their techs was a voyeur who turned on the cameras to watch the students at home.

    Edward Snowden is the perfect example of the adage that you’re not paranoid if their really out to get you.

    Jeff
    Have Coffee Will Write

  3. hyphenman says

    Mano,

    I have kept tape over my camera, and a “snapped off” micro jack in the microphone jack, of my laptops for years.

    You may remember 12 or 15 years ago when Beachwood gave Apple laptops to the incoming class of freshman only to later discover that one of their techs was a voyeur who turned on the cameras to watch the students at home.

    Edward Snowden is the perfect example of the adage that you’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you.

    Jeff
    Have Coffee Will Write

  4. Marshall says

    I remember your page about your webcam light a while ago and I had been wondering if there was any resolution. Did things just fizzle with the engineer? It seems like a rather disappointing ending.

    FYI, a rather simple way of determining whether or not someone was remotely turning on and off your camera would have been to disconnect from the internet (unplug ethernet, disconnect from all wifi and even turn off your wifi adapter if possible, or move to a location where you know there is no signal whatsoever) and see if the light still goes on/off. If it does, it’s not turning on/off due to signals being received.

  5. says

    It irks me that a person can’t buy a laptop without a built in camera and microphone. People still have that choice with towers, one of the reasons I’m seriously thinking about buying a tower again after 13 years of using laptops.

    Sometimes I’m tempted to take an awl and smash the pinhole camera in the laptop. It’s the fear of damaging other components that stops me.

  6. says

    OK, so here’s what you do when your camera light starts going on like that:
    Go buy a “sharktap” network tap and put it inline between your computer and the world; then hang another computer off the tap port and set up wireshark (or if you’re an old fart like me, that new-fangled “tcpdump”) then snapshot the traffic to a file. Don’t browse the web or do much that will generate network traffic during that time (though some malware has activity monitors and will tell the person steering it when your mouse hasn’t moved for a while).

    Assume all your data is compromised and don’t put anything on a computer that you’re not willing to have the FBI read. All that performance around the iPhone stuff; that’s all bullshit. Much of your data is in the “cloud” whether you think it should be or not and cloud integration is just getting deeper and deeper.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Meanwhile, as left0ver1under notes in passing @ # 6, most modern desktop and laptop systems, and all phones, also come with a built-in, software-controlled, microphone

    How does one disable that?

  8. Crimson Clupeidae says

    I’m pretty sure the same thing can be done with cell phone cameras, and there wouldn’t be any indication to even know if it was happening.

  9. hyphenman says

    @Pierce Butler No. 8…

    To disable your microphone, take an old micro jack from a set of headphones and insert the jack into the microphone socket (should be next to the headphone jack) and then a pair of dikes and snap the jack off fairly close to the machine case.

    This physical disconnect is safer than attempting to turn the microphone off with a software switch. If your machine does not have a microphone jack, then you’ll need to open the case and physically remove the microphone.

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  10. says

    I have a Mickey Mouse bandage covering my laptop’s camera. That way I don’t have to worry about a piece of paper being between it and some tape.

  11. Nathan says

    Surely they’d get more interesting information from your microphone… How much info can be gleaned from watching someone stare intently at the screen?

  12. Nathan says

    Also, there’s quite a lot of anecdotal evidence around of Facebook and other “Social Networking” sites listening in on you via your devices microphones. Such as sitting around with a bunch of mates having a discussion, and all of a sudden you end up getting adverts for whatever that discussion was about despite never having mentioned it anywhere before.

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    hyphenman @ # 10 – Thanks, that does sound like it ought to do the job.

    One question: after plugging a headphone set into the mic jack, why bother to clip the wires? Wouldn’t a mic-less headset, as used in a music system, disable audio pick-up as is?

    Nathan @ # 12 & 13 – You might get a nice set of goosebumps from reading up on the case of Robbins v. Lower Merion School District, about what happened when a public high school issued laptops to its students: they captured pics of a kid eating candy in his bedroom and used them to charge him with drug use.

  14. hyphenman says

    Pierce, No. 14…

    That’s true, you’re absolutely correct. If you’re laptop has a physical microphone jack, and you insert a jack there, clipping any wires would be a belt-and-suspender prophylactic.

    A mic-less headset would only disrupt the on-board speakers, not the microphone. I suggest the clipped mini-jack only because once inserted, I never need to worry about the computer’s microphone being turned on and if I want to use audio input, such as when I’m playing games online, I can easily remove the mini-jack with a pair of needle nose pliers.

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  15. Nathan says

    Here’s one for the tin foil hat brigade… I have heard that the powers that be can make your devices talk to each other via high freq audio that we can’t hear… if they can hack one device, but not the other, device one can do things too device two via high frequency audio signals.

    Wouldn’t surprise me frankly.

  16. hyphenman says

    @Nathan, No. 16…

    Not all that surprising. Students have been engaging in something similar for years via a ring tone pitched so high that the average adult can’t hear the sound.

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    hyphenman @ # 15 – Thanks! * rummages in leftover electronica drawer *

  18. hyphenman says

    @Dunc, No. 18

    I’m a firm believer in the principle that if an action has been demonstrated, then that action has either been done in practice or someone, somewhere, is working to make the action happen.

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

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