Keep those webcams covered

Published 3:00 am Friday, June 8, 2018

I attended an event recently and carried my laptop, which is sadly, very common.  I brought the laptop for several reasons, but primarily to keep a work effort moving forward while I traveled.  As I ate lunch in a large food court, a young man who sat near me approached.  He pointed at the laptop and began a series of questions about the device, most of which seemed rather straightforward and obvious.  In fact, he seemed to be winding up to something more pointed.  And he was.

He pointed at the top of my laptop screen and simply asked, “And that – what is that?”

His curiosity and gaze were directed to a simple piece of vinyl electrical tape.  The one-inch square is positioned over the lens of my laptop’s webcam.

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“That is electrical tape,” I offered.

His quizzical look turned to confusion quickly.  I explained.

For me, this is old news.  However, many people continue to be both shocked and surprised when they hear why I cover my webcams.  In fact, I suggest everyone does so as well.

I’ve worked scores of legal cases where the webcam was a cornerstone of institutional malfeasance; there is a thriving black market for “private” photos.  What better way to take those types of photos than via an internet-connected camera?

A quick review of a few internet marketplaces this morning revealed that the demand for private photos continues to be vibrant and common, despite its illegality.  One seller offered guaranteed access to “female webcams” for one American dollar each.  Apparently men are either easier to compromise or in less demand.  Access to “male webcams” was less than ten cents each.  To be clear, in this internet marketplace, sellers were offering bundles of credentials to access the webcams of people on the internet, around the planet.

How, you ask?  How does someone access your webcam?  Wouldn’t I notice the red or green light and know that something was going on?

Regarding how, that’s rather straightforward.  The ever-present bad actors invade the computer’s webcam controls via a number of common ways, most of which are associated with software.  The user of the laptop typically installs a “free” program that suggests that it does one operation – and it does.  However, an often-used trick is to imbed another application alongside a legitimate one.  In this example, a remote webcam control could be installed as well.  In doing so, the attacker gains control of the camera, and the user gets some “free” software, music, movie and a wide-open webcam.

And, of course, the easier method of attack is phishing.  A link is sent in an email.  The link points to a computer program that is installed remotely on the computer.  The bad software (malware) takes control of the webcam and disables the activity light as well.

One such program, Blackshade, was identified in 2014 by a number of security experts and the US Department of Justice.  Thousands of hackers purchased the software and it was observed on nearly one million computers.

A somewhat infamous photo surfaced in 2016 of Mark Zuckerberg.  In the photo, Zuckerberg, of Facebook fame, was posting somewhat humorous photos of himself at his workstation.  Close observers quickly noted that his laptop, situated in the background of the photo, had tape over the webcam and microphone.

So, yeah, I cover the webcam and microphone.  Some of my colleagues use sticky notes, others buy small plastic devices that cover the camera and microphone and allow easy removal when needed.  For me, the tape works really well.

As I finished my explanation to the young man, he thanked me and wandered off.  I noticed that he stared at his phone quite a bit as he left.

Now that’s a different story.  Get some tape and I’ll update you soon about the phone’s issues.

William Greg Price is the Chief Technology and Security officer for Troy University and the Director of the Alabama Computer Forensics Institute. He currently represents District 2 on the Pike County Board of Education.