With everyone relying on webcams and microphones these days, it’s vital to know how to protect yourself from accidental—or intentional—spying.
Cameras can be hijacked in a number of ways. Cybercriminals can commandeer them with viruses or ransomware, then extort you by demanding money for the deletion of potentially embarrassing photos and videos.
There’s always the matter of accidental exposure. Consider the horror stories of people who thought they disconnected from a work call, only to discover after taking a shower that their webcam was still active. And intentional webcam abuse is a devastating problem, as experienced by domestic abuse survivors who realize that their abuser has been watching them through spyware that activates the webcam.
Modern cameras display a green light when they’re on. Old cameras had the ability to disable this in software, rendering them vulnerable to stealthy viruses that turn off the indicator. Newer cameras, however, have the indicator hard-wired into the camera. Since it’s hard to tell which kind of camera you have, I advise you to assume that a webcam is on even if its indicator light is off.
For that reason, I’m fond of physically covering the webcam. You can buy a fancy camera cover, but it’s just as easy to use a sticky note or small piece of paper. I also strongly recommend to my fellow parents that you teach your kids how to keep their school cameras covered when not in use.
That doesn’t help with microphones, of course, which is why it makes sense to store your mobile devices where they’re less likely to overhear private conversations. If you don’t use voice activation, disable it. External microphones, including those on headsets, should be unplugged from the computer so they don’t pick up stray sounds.
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(This article was originally published in February 2013 and has been updated with new information.)