In 2014, more than half a million Windows computers were infected with malware that allowed explicit access to a user’s webcam and microphone. For reference, that’s nearly one-sixth of the U.S. population.
Webcam hacking is real. Resolutions are getting much better, too, meaning higher quality photos and videos can be used for spying or exploitation, so we’re here to guide you through how to secure your webcam.
We’re going to tell you why your webcam is unsafe before diving into the ways to fix it. A piece of tape generally works for overall protection but, as we’ll see, there may be some heavier lifting required to root out the problem.
Why You Need to Secure Your Webcam
A piece of tape placed over a laptop webcam was once a sign of someone who may be reading too much on the internet. This has changed: webcam spying isn’t a fantastical concept reserved for conspiracy theorists but a privacy threat that’s becoming more common.
In 2010, a lawsuit was brought against Lower Merion School District, which is in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Nearly 1,800 students were issued laptops as part of a federally-funded one-to-one student-to-laptop initiative.
Blake Robbins, a student of Harriton High School, was later accused of “improper behavior in his home” by school officials and shown a photograph taken remotely with his school-issued laptop’s webcam.
In 2014, Jared Abrahams, a 20-year-old college student, was sentenced to 18 months in prison after blackmailing Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf with nude photos he had taken with her webcam. Prosecutors estimated that he had accessed 100 to 150 other computers, too.
Even if you’re not a high school student or Miss Teen USA, one thing is clear: webcam spying is happening. The abuse of webcams is a major privacy concern, whether it’s a peeping Tom or the NSA spying on you. Here are a couple of ways you can fall victim to it.
There’s malware designed to access webcams and microphones. Malware is short for malicious software and you can learn more about common types online in our best antivirus guide.
The most famous malware that does this is a remote access tool developed by Blackshades. The RAT, developed by 24-year-old Swedish man Alex Yucel, was used to infect more than half a million machines by 2014.
It worked by having an initial victim click on a link through social media or email. Once clicked, the link spread to all the victim’s contacts, gaining access to more machines. Blackshades was responsible for the sexploitation that Cassidy Wolf suffered.
The malware was just a cheaper version of a tool that governments use to spy on their citizens. Citizenlab, a Canadian research lab, found 21 countries using similar tools, including Mexico, Thailand, Italy and Poland.
Your webcam can still be used for spying if you don’t have malware on your machine. Websites can access your webcam, but most browsers prompt you to grant them permission first. Machines with insecure browsers (check out our guide to browser security) may slip through the cracks, though.
USB devices have built-in security features that define what can and cannot access them. Your browser most likely has permission as webcams are used for online services such as Google Hangouts and Skype.
Internet connected cameras can be monitored if they’re not secured. As with all other webcam monitoring scenarios, people do it to take photos and videos of the user to exploit them. In some cases, the photos are posted to porn websites.
How to Secure Your Webcam
That was a pretty scary list, but we have an equally long one with tips on how to prevent webcam spying. Let’s take a look at some remedies, from easy to a little harder.
Unplug It or Tape It
If you’re using a desktop, you’re in luck. Unplugging your webcam when you’re not using it isn’t convenient, but it’s a sure way to stop snooping. Some newer webcams include an indicator, too, which shows you when they’re being used.
On laptops, the old tape method still works. Grab something dark, such as a piece of electrical tape, and put it over your webcam. Make sure to double-check with a webcam recording application that your covering is opaque, though.
Those are the two most practical ways to secure your webcam. However, they’re Band-Aid fixes. Webcam access is usually caused by a deeper problem on your machine and killing it at the source will get rid of it forever.
Use an Antivirus with Real-Time Protection
The most secure antivirus software scans for known malware, such as the Blackshades RAT and Delilah, as well as zero-day malware, exploits that behavior like other applications but haven’t been introduced to the malware database yet.
Regular scans of your machine will reveal malware, even that which has gained user permissions beyond the antivirus. Software such as ESET NOD32 (read our ESET NOD32 review) comes with UEFI scanning, meaning you can set it to scan your mass storage before your operating system loads.NOD32 performed well in the lab results we consulted during our antivirus reviews, but not as well as Bitdefender. Bitdefender received a Level 1 certification from MRG Effitas, meaning it blocked 100 percent of malware tested. You can read our Bitdefender review for other reasons we rated the antivirus number one.
Bitdefender and NOD32 have another advantage over options such as Windows Defender and Malwarebytes, though. They offer real-time protection, meaning drive-by downloads and browser permissions, including webcam permissions, are covered.
Some antiviruses, such as AVG, come with a secure browser that’s pre-configured with extensions for ad blocking, webcam protection and tracker blocking. Read our AVG review to learn why we think it’s the best free option on the market.
Enable Webcam Protection
Using a strong antivirus will get you a long way by fixing malware that’s on your computer and providing real-time protection, which blocks suspicious activity while a scan isn’t running. Some recent versions of popular antiviruses go a step further, though, with dedicated webcam protection.Kaspersky Internet Security (read our Kaspersky Anti-Virus review) is one such application. It breaks your desktop applications into three categories: trusted, low restricted and untrusted. Trusted applications have full access to the webcam, low restricted applications need user input to access the webcam and untrusted applications are blocked.
Many antiviruses include dedicated webcam protection, with Kaspersky among the best options. Webroot, Bitdefender and Avast have it, too, along with their other features (read our Webroot SecureAnywhere review and Avast Pro review).
The idea that someone is monitoring your webcam is scary, but there are ways to fight back against malware that allows people to do so and websites that get past USB devices’ built-in protection.
A strong antivirus with real-time monitoring and webcam protection is the first step. Webcam access isn’t the only threat you face online, though. Malware such as ransomware, keyloggers and bots are commonplace and carry out a variety of nefarious activities.
As long as you’re using a secure antivirus, such as Bitdefender, and a password manager, you should be fine, though. What webcam protections are you using? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.