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Webcams: What do I need to know?

(Watch the video instead)

In any other year, this might not seem like a topic with much meat, but it’s the year of Covid-19 and that has changed everything.  When the pandemic forced us to stay home and attempt to work from home, our webcams quickly became one of the most useful tech tools at our disposal.  We began Zooming, Microsoft Teaming, and Google Meeting.  Our children did, too, as their classrooms rapidly became virtual.

Suddenly, webcams are among the hottest gadgets you can buy.  Last April, you were hard-pressed to find a webcam at a reasonable price on Amazon, Best Buy, or Walmart.  Your choices were slim.  Availability has improved, and a good quality external webcam can be had for $25 to $40.  They are very simple, plug and play creatures.

But are they benign?

You may recall back in 2016, James Comey, head of the FBI at the time, recommended covering your webcam, claiming the security step was a common sense one that most should take.  Hackers can use easily accessible tools and phishing techniques to hijack webcams of unsuspecting people, often those they know, and watch them through their camera.  They can store images and videos of people in compromising situations, and many of these images and videos end up on shady websites.

And, if you have kids, you are probably very concerned about how and when they use their webcams.  Take the time to educate them, and yourself, on cybersecurity.  There is no reason to leave an unsecure recording device permanently accessible on your computer.

What should you do?

Make sure you are using anti-virus protection.  Using it, and keeping it updated, will help in dealing with the possibility of infection through a link or running the wrong executable.  Additionally, protecting your PC with anti-malware protection offers another defense against webcam hacking.  Some products, such as Norton SafeCam, are part of a suite of products that give you very advanced protection for your PC.

Always follow these golden rules of virus defense:

  • Always run up-to-date antivirus software
  • Avoid opening email from unknown senders
  • Don’t click on suspicious email attachments
  • Don’t click on enticing links sent through email, instant messages, or posted on social media
  • Only download files from trusted and legitimate sources

Beware of remote access tools.  With the recent surge in working from home, many users have needed IT support for their home PCs.  Make sure you can trust the source of your support.  Otherwise, you could inadvertently be giving a hacker access to your PC.  Remote access tools can be used for legitimate reasons such as technical support. Unfortunately, some of the useful features that enable you to get computer help from home are also used in malicious Trojans—often without your knowledge.  Remote access Trojans are good at hiding their presence on a computer, so a victim may not even know it has been installed. Using the Trojan, a cybercriminal can do almost anything that someone physically sitting at the computer can do, including record footage using the webcam. These types of Trojans are sometimes called “creepware.”

For desktop users with external webcams, the easiest solution is to simply unplug the USB cable.  No amount of hacking is going to magically plug the device back in.  It’s the most foolproof way to approach the problem if you have an external camera.

Finally, you can always cover it up.  As elementary and simplistic as it sounds, it’s a very effective technique.  You get instant visual confirmation that the lens is disabled, and it’s easy to remove.  There are some inexpensive options and even DIY methods that make this method very economical.  The Eyebloc is popular and well-reviewed on Amazon.  It’s a C-shaped plastic clamp that slips onto your laptop, tablet, or even a smartphone.  The C-slide is another option.  It is a tiny plastic slider that adheres to your laptop, tablet, or even the front of an external webcam.  You enable and disable the camera by sliding the tiny little panel back and forth.  Creative Cam Covers are yet a third option.  They look and feel like cut vinyl decal clings that stick to windows.  Static electricity allows them to cling to smooth surfaces.  These would work very well on iPhones and iPads.  If all else fails, there is always electrical tape! And as a special this month, the first 10 people to email me will get a free STOPTHINKCLICK webcam blocker from us.

Webcams have become popular to use in home security systems too.  Often, they operate using your wireless network, allowing you to see what’s going on around your home from anywhere via your Smartphone or a web browser.  Securing your wireless network is crucial to preventing a hack of these cameras.  We’ll dig deeper into wireless network security in next month’s column!

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