Is it really necessary to cover the laptop’s camera?

It’s one of the most common pieces of security advice on the net. Cover your laptop’s camera with a piece of tape, an adhesive bandage something else. The reason is of course to stop intruders from hijacking your camera and spying on you. But how important is that really? What’s the real risk to become a victim of that?

The reason for this fear is simple and logic. There’s a lot of spyware around, the full range from commercial surveillance products to tools for cyber crime and espionage. And it is of course technically trivial for these programs to also access the camera and microphone, once they manage to get installed on the device.

The reason for secret filming might be for example industrial espionage. And then there is “sextrotion”. That’s a fairly common scheme where victims are blackmailed with threats to publish embarrassing videos, often involving nudity. But the catch is that those videos aren’t filmed secretly with hijacked laptop cameras. Instead, the criminals lure the victims into a video chat with a hot representative of the other sex, for example on Skype. The chat gets hotter and more erotic while the clothes come off. The victim is naturally unaware of the fact that the whole session is recorded.

What the phone’s main camera sees when lying on a table.

So are there really cases with hijacked cameras? Maybe, but it is not common. There are no common criminal schemes that target private persons and involve this kind of espionage. And the reason is obvious, a hijacked camera is almost useless. Have you ever triggered a camera accidentally without aiming at anything? Did you get a usable picture? Maybe, but most likely not. The same is true with integrated cameras in laptops and phones. The laptop’s camera is just showing the user’s face most of the time, and that picture is usually available on the net anyway. If it shows your genitals, the you should rethink your working habits.

The mobile phone camera hijacker is equally unlucky. The main camera is showing darkness, the table, most of the time. And the selfie camera the roof. Not much to make money on.

What the phone’s selfie camera sees when lying on a table.

The microphone is a different story. It can fetch sounds from any direction without being aimed at anything. It can often record anything said in the room, no matter where you place the device. And which is more valuable? A picture of the group discussing something, or a recording of what they said? I would choose the recording. In addition, a camera can be blinded with tape, but there is no reliable way to do the same to a microphone. Tape might damp it a bit, but it is next to impossible to mute it completely.

The conclusion is that taping the camera won’t hurt, but not do much good either. Remember that when you have that hot sextortion chick online you probably remove the cover yourself. The important line of defense is to keep your device free from malware. If you really get targeted by a spy, they will probably go for the microphone rather than the camera. Malware protection is a generic measure against spyware, it stops both the audio and video spies.

Remember the three basic security rules for computers:

  1. Use common sense. Be careful with suspect web pages and think twice before installing stuff you downloaded. And keep your pants on when video conferencing!

  2. Make sure the computer receives all security updates. Keep the automatic updates enabled for both the system and the applications.

  3. Use a good anti malware product.

The rules for phones and tables are slightly different. Common sense and the updates are of course important here too. But there are some new functions that help you ensure proper security and privacy. Apps need permission from the user to access critical resources, like the camera and microphone. Stop and think when an app asks for permissions. Does this app really need to access the microphone, for example? It depends on the app. A decibel meter has a valid reason to listen, but there’s something fishy if an app for identifying mushrooms makes the same request. No is obviously the right answer for the mushroom app.

It’s worth mentioning that the “big boys” also play with this kind of tools. Leaks from CIA have revealed technology that can hijack the camera and microphone in smart TV-sets. They are computers nowadays and may be equipped for video conferencing. This new technology is apparently replacing hidden microphones and cameras, easier and quicker to install and harder to detect. Hijacking a TV’s camera does actually make more sense. It’s often placed to have a good overview of the living room. Of a convenient place to gather and discuss.

So it does actually make more sense to tape the smart-TV’s camera. But on the other hand, how many of us do have agencies like CIA on our tail? The hack has leaked and can be used by others, but still require local installation on the device. So it will never be a common problem for ordinary people.