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Should You Cover Your Webcam? Only If You’ve Taken These Steps First

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Recently, people idly noticed Mark Zuckerberg covers his Mac’s webcam with a piece of tape. He’s not alone, as the head of the FBI does it as well. And it’s been an unquestioned axiom of web security for years: Cover up your webcam. But covering your webcam is often little more than a placebo that keeps people from protecting their computers.

Can Somebody Hack My Webcam?

Yes, hackers can indeed breach your webcam. In fact, it’s relatively easy to do. The most notorious case, involving former Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf, was done with a piece of software called Blackshades that cost $40. Generally webcam breaches happen in one of two ways: Hackers introduce malware into your computer or the webcam itself, usually through a phishing attack that has you click on a link that installs the malware, or they breach the website streaming the video.

The idea of somebody spying on you is undeniably creepy. It absolutely can happen and it does happen, usually as part of a harassment campaign. But the thing is, while the potential is there, it’s rarely acted on relative to other problems in computer security, and it’s usually just a symptom of a larger problem. Webcam hacking is usually less something that actually happens to people and more an internet bogeyman story people fall for because it taps into our deeper fears. The reality is, yes, hackers can breach your webcam, but they usually won’t.

What Does Your Webcam See?

To give you an idea why they don’t care, stop and think for a moment about your webcam and what you generally do in front of your computer. Take yours truly, for example. If you breached my computer, you would get, 95 percent of the time, live streaming video of a pasty nerd underlit by a blue wash to make him even more pasty tapping at his keyboard. The other 5 percent would be a view of my couch and audio of labored grunting as I try to lift a kettlebell. Perhaps I am being watched, but the people doing so must be deeply bored or really into grunting.

If a professional hacker is breaching your computer, they’re not doing it because what you do in front of a webcam is fascinating. They’re likely doing it because they want access to your credit cards and your bank passwords. Notably, the malware in the Cassidy Wolf case was mostly designed to help amateur hackers breach financial data, with webcam breaching just included mostly for the hell of it. Again, this isn’t to imply webcam breaches don’t happen, but slapping a piece of tape over your webcam isn’t going to help as much as some basic common sense.

Protect Your Computer

There is no better proof that even technologically experienced people can be a bit silly than the fact that Mark Zuckerberg covers his webcam with tape, yet can’t be bothered to use basic password security precautions. The best way to avoid your webcam being breached is to not let hackers onto your computer in the first place.

As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, hackers rely more on basic human stupidity than obscure coding skills. Most of us are smart enough not to click on a link from somebody we don’t know, and most hackers prey on the small percentage of us who aren’t. Similarly, practicing the basic principles of password security will keep the majority of would-be webcam watchers out. Use passwords longer than eight characters that include numbers and special characters, never reuse passwords, and don’t use anything people can guess as your password, like your pet’s name. Most would-be “hackers” will be stymied if you just take these basic steps.

Beyond that, don’t trust a laptop you didn’t buy yourself. The most notorious webcam breach had nothing whatsoever to do with hackers, but rather a school district deliberately installing malware on laptops it issued to students. If you’re really paranoid, you can uninstall “bloatware” programs that use your webcam, or install a new operating system. Finally, when all else fails, keep your laptop closed when you’re not using it, and yes, a piece of masking tape won’t hurt. But some basic computer security will protect all aspects of your privacy, not just what your webcam might see.

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