Why Are People Covering the Cameras on Their Laptops and Phones?

Webcam Spying

Last year, Lenovo unveiled its 2018 laptop models and proudly announced that they come with a brand new feature – a built-in cover the slides over the webcam and ensures that nobody can spy on you. Peculiarly, they decided that it needs a name and called it the 'ThinkShutter'. We'll leave it up to you to decide whether Lenovo's marketing team overcooked it, but the fact of the matter is, they are not the only ones trying to bank on the whole block-your-webcam business.

You can now purchase dedicated webcam covers from people who seem to be quite desperate to advertise the products. One seller, for example, has used parts of a Tech Insider video featuring Kevin Mitnick (one of the world's most famous hackers) to promote its webcam covers. We're not sure if Mr. Mitnick and Tech Insider are aware of this fact.

Silly names and botched together advertising videos aside, physically blocking your webcam is, as teenagers may say, officially a thing now. But should you follow the trend?

Can your webcam be hacked?

Yes. Regardless of whether we're talking about a laptop, a desktop machine with an external camera, or a mobile device, the little components that we use to make video calls and take selfies can be compromised. And as Kevin Mitnick mentioned in the aforementioned Tech Insider video, they can be compromised using off-the-shelf software that is bought and sold on the internet.

Sure, getting the target to install the said software is not the easiest thing in the world, but it's not exactly impossible. You'd be amazed at how advanced the criminals' social engineering techniques have become. Although many of the Remote Access Trojans (RATs) that can control your webcam are now fairly old, hackers continue to find clever ways of concealing the malicious activity. New tools come out frequently, and because they include functionality that goes well beyond turning the camera on, they can change the system settings and disable the small LED light that lights up during recording.

How likely are you to become a victim?

More often than not, efficiency is the name of the game when it comes to cybercrime. Usually, the hackers' goal is to walk away with as much monetizable data as possible in as little time as possible, and it must be said that in a large-scale campaign, you are more likely to have your passwords stolen or your computer locked by ransomware than to be extorted for money because of an embarrassing thing your webcam recorded.

Should you cover your own webcam?

The problem of webcam spying does get blown out of proportion sometimes, and some people tend to put more weight on it than they should. Nevertheless, it should not be underestimated.

The "it won't happen to me" mentality is arguably the biggest enemy of people's online security. In this day and age, no threat is too small, and no attack is too unlikely, not to mention the fact that the mere thought of someone secretly spying on you through your own device is nothing short of sickening.

Covering up your web camera, even for the sake of a bit of peace of mind, is a very good idea. If you don't have (or want) a dedicated cover, a piece of electrical tape or a sticky note will do the job just as well. It costs (next to) nothing, and you'll be over with it in seconds. There really is no excuse for not doing it.

Can a blocked camera eliminate the threat completely?

No, it can't. As you probably know, in addition to a webcam, your device has a built-in microphone which can't be blocked by a cover or a piece of tape. Furthermore, there are dozens of other ways of tracking your movements and spying on you.

So, by all means, do cover up your web cameras, but don't let this fool you into a false sense of security. Think carefully about your threat model, and see what you can do to improve your overall security posture.

February 12, 2019

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