These days, everybody is using webcams and microphones to communicate. From important business meetings to kids chatting with grandma, social distancing has made these devices almost mandatory. Bad actors of course, have taken notice and have started targeting PCs, laptops and even mobile devices in force.
Someone watching through a small laptop or personal computer camera may sound farfetched, but it's something that is very do-able and is being done. So how can you tell if you're at risk? And what can you do to stop it?
How webcam spying works and why it's done
First off, lets address how can someone access your webcam in the first place.
Most commonly, cybercriminals will utilize malware to grant themselves remote access to your computer and it's attached devices (ie: your webcam). Things like Remote Access Trojans (RATs) are widely spread through freeware, spam emails, infected attachments, or fake website links.
Other software is much less invasive and is designed to simply detect when the camera is active and then record whatever it sees. This type of malware can be more difficult to detect as there are no obvious signs it's even present on the computer.
Now you're probably asking "why would anyone want to spy on me?". There are actually a variety of reasons attackers do so. A big one is blackmail. Computers, laptops especially, can often be located in bedrooms or other places where the camera may catch a glimpse of something you'd rather not everyone see.
It can also be used to case your home and gather information such as when you're not home, whether or not you have a security system, and what kinds of valuables you may have.
Lastly, it can also be used to simply gather information about you. Information which is then sold to the highest bidder for any number of purposes. For these reasons alone, even the most "ordinary" person should be concerned.
How to tell if you're being spied on
There are a couple of things to keep an eye out for that can tip you off that your camera is being taken advantage of.
Watch for the light: Most webcams will have a small LED light that illuminates whenever the camera is on/recording. If this light is on, even when you're not in a meeting or video call, it should raise an immediate red flag.
Verify app permissions: This can be applied to both PCs as well as phones and tablets. You should verify what apps are allowed to access the camera (and microphone) and ensure that only apps you know and trust are allowed. If you see an app you don't recognize having permission to access the camera, it should raise another reg flag.
How to prevent webcam spying
As mentioned earlier, the majority of webcam spying is possible due to malware. As a result, ensuring your system does not have malware running on it is the biggest step towards making sure you're not being spied on. Ensuring you have proper Anti-Virus protection on your devices and ensuring that protection is up-to-date and functioning is critical.
That said, even the best Anti-Virus in the world isn't perfect all the time. As a result, it's up to you to help it along by practicing safe computing habits:
- Don't trust attachments, even from people you know.
- Hover over external links to see where they will take you before clicking.
- Question the credibility of any software you download/install onto your computer. Especially freeware.
- Ensure you have a robust Anti-Virus installed and that it is functioning properly.
- Make sure the firewall on both your devices as well as your router is turned on and working.
- Disable vulnerable services on your router like UPnP and WPS. This reduces your overall vulnerability.
- Ensure your devices operating systems are fully patched and installed software is kept up-to-date.
Finally, if you really want to, you can go the "low tech" route that many people use and put a piece of tape over the camera lens, only removing it when it's needed. When doing this, we recommend using a good quality vinyl/electrical tape as it is less likely to tear, leave residue, or become permanently affixed to the device. Doing this doesn't mean you should ignore the steps outlined above, but it can offer that extra peace-of-mind.
While we're talking about webcams, keep in mind your smartphone camera and any surveillance cameras need protection too. On your phone, be sure to keep your passcode/PIN private and make sure updates are applied when available. With a surveillance system, always change the default password. You'd be amazed how many people don't bother to do so. Not changing the default password is basically leaving the front door to your security system wide open.
Being spied on through your webcam or other systems may sound terrifying. But there are steps you can take to make sure you don't fall victim to an attacker. If you would like assistance in ensuring you're not being spied on, we're always happy to help.