Spying on people through their computers’ webcams might sound like a trick you would see in a James Bond movie, but it is a real threat in this digital age. Hackers, government agencies, and even a U.S. school district have been caught doing it.

While some hackers spy on people because they are Peeping Toms, most are in it for the money. They seek information and images that they can sell in underground cyber markets. As a result, employees are often the target. For example, in July 2016, Diskin Advanced Technologies researchers discovered that hackers were using new malware dubbed Delilah to turn employees into insider threats. The hackers delivered Delilah through downloads from popular adult and gaming websites. Once the malware was installed on the victims’ computers, it gathered personal information about the victims, including images captured with their webcams. If compromising data was found, hackers used it to coerce the victims into providing access to their employers’ networks or intellectual property.

Not a New Problem

Malware that manipulates webcams has been around for quite some time. In 2012, Kaspersky Lab researchers discovered the Flame spy toolkit. It turned on webcams as well as performed many other espionage operations in an effort to spy on victims and steal data from them. Flame had been in use, undetected, since 2010, and evidence suggests that it might even date back to 2007.

Through the years, webcam malware has been getting more advanced. Hackers have created programs that access the webcams in all types of computers (e.g., laptops, tablets) running popular operating systems (e.g., Windows 10, Mac OS X). They have also created malware that disables webcam indicator lights so that the victims cannot tell when their cameras are being activated.

This trend will likely continue. In October 2016, security researcher Patrick Wardle discovered a vulnerability in macOS and OS X computers that lets malware gain access to computers’ webcams by hiding alongside, or piggybacking, legitimate applications (e.g., FaceTime, Skype) that are accessing the cameras. The malware waits until the victims use the legitimate applications. Only then does it start recording their video and audio activities. Because the victims are expecting the webcam indicator lights to be on, they do not realize their cameras are spying on them.

There are no documented cases of malware taking advantage of this vulnerability. However, that might be due to the fact that no one has detected it yet. As the Flame spy toolkit demonstrates, sometimes malware can run undetected for a long time.

How to Avoid Being Spied On

There are several measures you can take to protect yourself from webcam malware. For starters, you should use safe email and web-browsing habits. By not clicking attachments or links in emails from unknown senders and avoiding shady websites, you can reduce your chances of getting infected with this type of malware.

Despite these precautions, you might still get infected. For this reason, it is important that you use anti-malware software that includes anti-spyware protection. You also need to keep your operating system and applications updated. That way, hackers cannot access your computer through known security vulnerabilities.

Another action you can take is to cover, disable, or lock your webcam. If you have an external device, you can simply unplug the cable from the USB port when you are not using the camera. With built-in webcams, you need to choose another course of action. Here are some possibilities:

  • Cover the webcam lens. This low-tech approach is surprisingly effective. You can purchase a webcam cover or you can create your own with a little ingenuity. However, be careful to not get adhesive on your lens if your creation includes tape.
  • Disable the webcam at the operating system level when you are not using it. Disabling the device at the operating system level will stop many, but not all, webcam malware programs from spying on you. If a malware program has remote administrative access to your computer, it can enable the device again. The steps to disable your webcam depend on which operating system you have.
  • Disable the webcam at the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) level. When you disable the device at the BIOS level, you are completely protected from webcam malware. However, it involves changing the BIOS settings when you boot your computer, so it is a task best suited for an IT expert. The only time you should choose this course of action is when you do not plan on using your webcam at all.
  • Use an application to lock your webcam. Applications are available that can monitor access to your computer’s webcam. When a program or hacker tries to access it, you get an alert. In that alert, you are able to allow access to legitimate programs and deny access to everything else.

Have a Plan

Webcams are useful devices, no matter whether you are in the office or at home. With some basic safeguards, you can use them with minimal risk. We can help you develop a plan to protect yourself from hackers’ spying eyes.