2013-12-20 / Columnists

Your Life And Privacy

Is Your Webcam Watching You?
By Gille Ann Rabbin, Esq., CIPP/US

Recent media reports have highlighted dangers that webcams can pose. Reports have included accounts of “revenge porn,” the travails of the reigning Miss Teen USA, a settlement by the Federal Trade Commission, and the misguided efforts of a Pennsylvania school district to track schoolprovided computers.

Webcams are video cameras that generally come installed in your computer. They can also be bought separately and hooked up to your computer.

Webcams are great because they can be used for online video chatting, or taking stills. However, if your webcam is constantly on, it can record whatever is going on within the scope of its viewfinder. If you keep your computer in your bedroom, it can record your most personal activities.

Webcams can be used for invasive purposes. Using remote access tools that a user unwittingly downloads, potentially by opening a familiar-looking file, hackers can break into your computer to steal your images, take photos of you or access streaming video: what you are doing in front of your computer in real time.

Earlier this month, a California man was charged with operating a “revenge porn” website. Photos used as revenge porn can be stolen or hacked from online accounts by somebody who wants to exact revenge upon another by exposing nude photos. In this case, the perpetrator allowed people to post compromising images of others that he used to blackmail the victims, by charging $250 to $350 to remove the photos.

Miss Teen USA, Cassidy Wolf, was recently the victim of a former classmate’s hacking. For over two years, the hacker broke into computers belonging to young women, including Miss Wolf. He took pictures of the women when they were undressed, and threatened to post the photos online unless they sent additional photos or stripped live for him via video. Some women complied; the hacker posted nude photos of those, like Miss Wolf, who did not.

In September, the Federal Trade Commission announced a settlement with TRENDNet, a security company that allowed customers to monitor remotely their homes using webcams. Unfortunately, because of weak security, a hacker managed to break into the live video streams of hundreds of webcams.

In 2010, a Philadelphia-area school district settled two lawsuits over claims it used remote access software to take thousands of secret webcam photographs from student laptops in an effort to locate missing computers.

Safe webcam usage entails taking some precautions. Some tips that may help you stay safe from hackers include the following:

 Put a piece of tape or a post-it over your webcam when you are not using it.
Don’t rely upon your webcam’s “active” light, because some hacking programs are designed to work without turning the light on.
 When you use your webcam, don’t do anything in front of it that you wouldn’t want the world to see.
 Scan your computer system regularly with anti-virus and anti-spyware software.  If you are somewhat of a techie, consider running Linux instead of Windows.
Hackers generally don’t bother writing programs to infiltrate the Linux operating system because it is used much less widely than Windows. It is also
more complicated to hack into a Linux system.
 If your children use a computer that has a webcam, make sure you educate
them of the dangers that webcams pose.

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