Monday, February 11, 2019

On Covering Webcams

John Gruber (tweet):

I have never understand the mass paranoia over laptop webcams — which have in-use indicator lights, which I’ve seen no evidence can be circumvented on Macs from the last decade — and the complete lack of similar paranoia over microphones, which cannot be blocked by a piece of tape and which have no in-use indicator lights. And I don’t see anyone taping over the cameras on their phones. This story is only going to feed that paranoia, because the takeaway is going to be “The Wall Street Journal says you should cover up your webcam.”


The problem isn’t your camera, it’s malware. Don’t install any software from unknown or sketchy sources, keep your OS up to date, and you should be fine. And if you do have malware on your Mac, the webcam is likely the least of your problems.

I cover my Mac’s camera with a piece of tape, not because I’m terribly worried about it, but because it’s easy to do, so why not? But I think something like Little Snitch is probably better protection. I don’t really care whether an app is using the camera or microphone so long as it isn’t sending data anywhere.

Phone cameras and microphones should probably be of greater concern, but there’s not much you can do about them. It’s not practical to cover sensors that you use throughout the day. Third-party phone apps are harder to audit. And intelligence agencies can allegedly activate the microphone and camera, anyway.


9 Comments RSS · Twitter

Gruber really isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Apple just patched a FaceTime bug where the camera and mic were hot before a group call came in. It doesn’t matter what the user installs if the bug comes via zero day. Just open the wrong email.

I guess I should mention that in a number of secure environments, tape over the camera is required, and in some cases cameras are totally removed Where the devices are not cleared for use.

Aside that I use *micro* snitch: every time I connect a phone or an iPad it tells me that an active camera/mic has been connected.

@Leo the way I read it, his point isn’t that bugs don’t exist. His point is that the light next to the camera _always_ turns on when the camera is on, so fears of surreptitious recording are overblown. You can see if someone/something is using the camera when you don’t expect it.

I'd also cover the microphone, if there was a reasonable way to do that.

Also, covering the camera has the added benefit that even when you run legitimate apps that turn the camera automatically, you have physical control over when a picture is actually being transmitted.

One of the reason why I bought a Mac is because of its Camera implementation. I don't know a sticker on my camera, and have a light on when Camera is on by physical and not software design is a big deal to me. I do wish something is done about the Mic though, although I guess that is a lot harder, especially considering I do lots of voice input.

I think Gruber is focusing too much on the green light. Even if it is physically impossible to use the camera without the green light I'd still cover the camera for several reasons.

First, I use my MBP with an external monitor as main monitor and the internal screen as second monitor on the side. Therefore I would not immediately notice if the green light was lit.

Second, unlike a phone the camera on a computer screen is often in a perfect position to view your home or office when you're not using the computer. If my phone is resting on a table or in my pocket it would either just show the ceiling or nothing at all if someone manage to turn on the camera remotely. So the opportunity to be a creepy spy into somebodies home or life is much bigger with a camera on a computer screen.

Also, if you're away from the computer you probably won't notice when the green light turns on. Covering the camera just gives a peace of mind, really. I don't know why Gruber is so stuck at the detail of the green light itself.

"The problem isn’t your camera, it’s malware," is an incredibly dumb take. Even people who don't download software from sketchy places can get malware. Flaws in software exist and people will exploit them. And as Michael pointed out, intelligence agencies can access the webcam. Even if you're not a target of intelligence agencies, the Vault 7 leak shows how easy it can be for these sort of hacks to leak from intelligence agencies to other actors.

So many security practices are difficult for novice users and make getting work done harder. Putting a sticker over your web cam when you're not using it is easy.

Get some EFF stickers. It's a good idea, and a good cause.

Adrian B is exactly right. While the green light being on when the camera is on is great, you have to actually notice the camera. I put a sticker over my camera because I'm not always sitting at my computer to notice it.

And yes, I would also cover up the mic if I could.

I know several people that cover the front camera on theirs phones.

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