Steven Spokane, an IT security expert, was chatting with friends on his webcam one night when he started receiving some strange emails. Imagine his surprise when he opened one and found images of himself chatting.
His webcam had been hijacked by a hacker who used malware written by someone else. He quickly detached the webcam, but he had to reload his computer operating system after he saw the malware installed on his computer. “It was painful, but it was also a valuable learning experience,” says Steven.
The hidden risks of the webcam
Webcams can let you stay in touch with friends or family, but they also can provide some risks of people hacking into them and ultimately spying on you. A recent lawsuit accused a school of using webcams on school provided laptops to spy on students and their families! And in China, a network of hackers known as the GhostNet has cracked 1300 webcams in 105 countries.
Since most laptops now come with a built-in webcam, it’s critical to understand the risks, says Richard Smalls, a malware expert. “We all have to aware ourselves that every action could be watched.”
How hackers can hijack webcams
Most hackers use Trojan horse attacks. You click on an attachment or download a piece of music or video infected with malware, and a hacker is able to control your PC’s actions.
Fortunately, you can take precautions to secure your webcam. Leading IT experts offer these steps:
- Don’t click on suspicious attachments. You’ve heard it before, but too often we click without thinking. Email attachments are still a prime source for malware. Be wary of those supposedly funny emails forwarded by friends and family. You should also avoid suspicious sites offering free downloads of TV shows, music or videos.
- Do use a firewall. “Firewalls provide a measure of protection against unwanted traffic,” explains Fox. Your computer comes with a firewall, but you need to make sure it’s turned on. If you use a Windows operating system, click on the Windows symbol in the lower-left corner of your screen, search for Windows Firewall, and you’ll be able to check the firewall settings. If you use a Mac OS, open System Preferences, click on the Sharing icon, select the Firewall tab and click Start.
- Do use strong anti-virus software. Install a security suite that offers malware and spyware protection, then make sure you keep the protection up to date.
- Don’t keep PCs with webcams in bedrooms. Limit webcam use to high-traffic areas, and remind family members not to do anything in front of a webcam they wouldn’t want the world to see.
- Do secure your wireless connection. Make sure your wireless connection is protected with a unique password (not the default one that came with the router).
- Don’t talk to strangers. Avoid IM conversations with people you don’t know, and advise your kids to do the same.
- Do be cautious about accepting tech help. Would-be hackers have been known to ingratiate themselves with acquaintances by offering computer help. But that gives them the chance to rig webcams so they can spy on the computer user.
- Do look for the indicator light. On external webcams, you’ll usually see a red light indicating the camera is on. Laptops with internal webcams usually have a blue LED indicator. If you use an external webcam, simply detach it from the USB port when it’s not in use.
Ultimately, your best bet is to use perhaps a lowtech solution, say the IT security experts. “The ultimate security control is to cover the lens.” If your webcam doesn’t come with a lens cover, use an tape or even a yellow sticky note to cover it up. “It sounds silly, but it gives you positive feedback that no one is spying on you.”