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.