Can People Look Through Your Webcam Without You Knowing?

by Laurel Storm

Because webcams can be extremely useful for many purposes, from telecommuting to work to chatting with distant friends and family, they are becoming more and more common, to the point that they're often built into newer laptops and netbooks. When you're using your webcam, you likely know who's watching. The question is -- who's watching when you aren't paying attention to it?

It's (Probably) Not Big Brother

The bad news is, somebody could indeed be watching you through your webcam. It's likely not a government agency, unless they consider you enough of a threat for it to be a worthwhile endeavor, but the alternative is not much better. Literally anybody could be watching you through your webcam, for whatever reason -- from a school wanting to know what your child is doing with his school-issued laptop to a voyeur looking for prurient material or a criminal looking for somebody to blackmail.

How It Works

One of the easier ways for somebody to gain control of your webcam is to infect your computer with malware. Like all malware infections, it could come from anywhere and is usually disguised as something innocent, such as an e-card or a fun little program. Once you've unwittingly installed it, the malware will switch on your webcam and transmit the video feed back to its source. More sophisticated malware won't stop there, either -- it could also control everything else on your computer, including your microphone, and allow the person controlling it to look through your hard drive.

Don't Click That

Simply browsing the Internet may also put you at risk. For example, interactive Flash animations can, if you grant them permission, access your microphone and webcam; an ill-intentioned person could take advantage of a security hole in your browser to disguise the confirmation prompt as something else, such as a "Play Video" button; if you click, your webcam will take a picture, or record a video feed for as long as you keep the page open. These security holes are often patched relatively quickly, but you might still be at risk in the period between their discovery and the patch.

Protecting Yourself

It almost goes without saying that you should have anti-virus software installed and keep both it and your browser up to date, as that alone will protect you from most potential attacks. If somebody you don't know sends you a file, delete it without opening it; if the file comes unexpectedly from a friend or family member, ask the sender about it before opening it, since it's possible that he may be the victim of a hack or malware himself. The only certain way to protect yourself from undetectable malware or unpatched security holes, however, is a low-tech one. If you have an external webcam, unplug it from your computer when you're not using it. If the webcam is built into your laptop, cover its lens with a piece of tape.

About the Author

Laurel Storm has been writing since 2001, and helping people with technology for far longer than that. Some of her articles have been published in "Messaggero dei Ragazzi", an Italian magazine for teenagers. She holds a Master of Arts in writing for television and new media from the University of Turin.

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