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.

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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.