Is Your Webcam Watching You?

Here in Pennsylvania the local news is trying to scare everyone about the possibility that their webcam is watching them. Virtually every time I turn on the tv I see a commercial asking me if my computer is spying on me and telling me I should watch the news to find out.  I bet these commercials are scaring the heck out of people.

Two Pennsylvania Cases

The reason for this fear mongering is a recent lawsuit involving a rental company that allegedly installed keycap software and had been taking pictures of those who rented computers from them. It seems the spying is in an effort to locate people who aren’t paying their bills. Unfortunately, in this case, the victims are claiming, they were paying their bills and the rental company made a mistake.

This isn’t the first Pennsylvania case involving the issue of webcam spying.  Last year a school was accused of using spyware to take pictures of students using its computers. That case settled for $610,000. The Pennsylvania school claimed it was keeping track of its computers in case they were stolen.

Given snapping pictures and using keycaps programs are a major violation of privacy, this issue needs to get resolved and quickly. To me putting spyware on a computer, especially without any kind of warning, is completely inappropriate. But I am also not sure I can agree that putting software capable of snapping pictures or keeping track of everything typed is ever appropriate. I might be able to swing my way to agreeing to GPS in a computer, if appropriately used and with an appropriate warning, to deal with theft or failure to pay.

The Reality

Here’s the reality. It is perfectly possible for someone to install software that he can use to spy on you. That software can be installed especially easily when you rent or borrow a computer as is what occurred in the cases I  mentioned above. In addition, software can be installed through some form of malware.

Wikipedia, which I generally don’t recommend for serious research, happens to have a good solid article on malware. Take a look to familiarize yourself with the different types.  Also check out the slides from my presentation, Viruses, Spyware, and Scripts –  Oh My – The Importance of Protecting Your Computer. My slides contain brief definitions of the different kinds of malware and suggestions for keeping your computer safe.

Prevention when borrowing or renting a computer

How do you prevent software that can spy on you from being installed?  The first step, if you are borrowing computer or renting  a computer is to review all the terms of service. Make certain there is nothing in those terms about anything giving the company the right to spy on you. If there is, don’t take the computer or make sure you arrange to have the software removed, if that is possible.

Of course the company might not reveal the fact that it is spying on you. This means you will need to very carefully look for any signs that it might be doing so.

In both cases mentioned above, the victims became aware of the spying simply because an employee revealed pictures to them. This resulted in both lawsuits.

Prevention as a result of malware

When it comes to malware it is simply crucial that you do the following:

1. Keep your computer up-to-date with Microsoft updates
2. Install good anti-malware software and keep it up to date
3. Make sure you frequently scan your computer (at least once a week.)

The simplest ways to prevent spying via webcam

As far as the webcam goes, the absolute simplest way to make certain no one is taking pictures of you is to:

1. If the webcam is integrated with your computer disable it through the control panel on your computer.
2. If the webcam is not integrated, simply unplug it when it is not in use.
3. Put a piece of black duct tape over the shutter.


They say just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you. I don’t cover my computer webcam with duct tape, but I do make sure to keep my computer malware free by using up-to-date software to keep it that way. I also keep my Microsoft operating system up-to-date to help with any coding security holes.

Once you keep your computer up-to-date you can then decide if you want to add the tape. Tape definitely will make it impossible for someone to to take a picture of you or your children. So if you are that worried, go ahead, add the tape.

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