FBI Director James Comey recently said that everyone should put opaque tape over their computer webcams to protect their privacy. That sounds terribly simplistic, but Comey is right. There are plenty of people — not just the NSA or FBI, but also creeps, criminals, teachers and creditors — who will use your webcam, and also your computer's microphone, to spy on you.
In 2010, two high school students near Philadelphia sued their local school district because school personnel had activated the anti-theft software on their school-issued MacBooks and secretly photographed the students at home.
The spying came to light when the school tried to discipline one student for alleged drug dealing at home. The district admitted that thousands of photos had been taken of dozens of students, and settled the cases for $600,000.
In 2011, Luis Mijangos, a Southern California man confined to a wheelchair, was sentenced to six years in prison for using webcam malware to spy on more than 100 women and girls, nearly half of whom were under 18. (He also used the microphones to record audio.)
Mijangos would "sextort" the victims, contacting them and threatening to make public the nude images and videos he had unless the women voluntarily posed for more.
The same year, a Wyoming couple sued the national rent-to-own chain Aaron's after the company used the webcam on a rented computer to spy on the couple. The couple's final payment on the computer hadn't been recorded, and a repossession man who showed up at their house to seize the computer provided the webcam photo as evidence that the couple still had it.
Of course, if you're a high-profile target like James Comey, you know that not only webcams, but laptop microphones and smartphone microphones and cameras can be remotely turned on. That's why ordinary laptops and smartphones aren't allowed into the U.S. government's SCIFs, or sensitive compartmented information facilities, specialized rooms where classified information is presented and discussed.
This all sounds terribly paranoid, but many smartphone apps can turn on the camera and microphone when they want to — you've already given them permission to do so. You don't normally grant such permission to a desktop application, but it's far easier to hack a Windows PC than a smartphone.
It's not likely that you're going to be discussing state secrets at home. But if you've got a computer in your bedroom, put black electrical tape over the webcam. Cut off the plug from a broken pair of headphones and stick it in the microphone jack to disable the external microphone.
If you're talking about something and you'd rather the conversation didn't leave the room, make sure there are no smartphones or laptops in the room. If you're a company executive discussing sensitive information in a meeting, do the same. Your friends may think you're a nut, but that's their problem.
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