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Understanding the modern webcam threat

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On 21 June, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, posted a message on the social network celebrating an Instagram landmark. The photo and video-sharing platform, which is owned by Zuckerberg’s company, is now enjoyed by more than 500-million active monthly users.
This seminal moment was quickly forgotten. Why? There proved to be an interesting picture attached to the post, with Zuckerberg holding a cardboard cutout of an Instagram post.
Behind him on the desk, sat what is thought to be his personal MacBook. Not only was the audio jack covered with tape, so too was the built-in webcam, says Steve Flynn, director at ESET Southern Africa.
One of the positive things to come out of Zuckerberg’s unintentionally viral Facebook post is that it raised awareness of webcam security and associated vulnerabilities, which has only recently become an area of real concern in areas outside of normal information security industry.
The origins of the webcam are surprisingly quirky. Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK wanted to ensure that they could always guarantee they would be able to enjoy a cup of coffee with little effort.
However, with multiple individuals working on multiple floors, it was a game of luck – the pot was in one location and it was not visible to most people. As such, the pot could be full, empty or somewhere in-between.
The proved to be rather disquieting to the researchers, so a couple of them decided to rig up a camera in the room to monitor the coffee pot. In turn, this could be observed by all concerned parties via the university’s internal computer network. This was the start. The web breakthrough came in November 1993, when Dr Martyn Johnson built a script around the captured images.
Expectedly, the technology, which has since evolved to offer us online video conversations, remote conferencing capabilities and the ability to vlog, has attracted the attention of cybercriminals. If exploited, through the installation of a remote access tool, for example, it can offer unscrupulous individuals a high degree of ‘access’ to our homes and the most intimate and mundane aspects of our lives.
As with most successful malware, the victim is usually unaware that anything is amiss, meaning cybercriminals can spy on people from a remote location comfortable in the knowledge nobody knows what they are up to. And all because of a technology that is now a fundamental part of your smartphone, tablet or personal computer.
We need to be more thoughtful when it comes to webcam security. Knowing what to look out for and what to do is increasingly important because it can make a huge difference to know how you respond to a situation.
The main thing to understand is that when it comes to webcam security, you need to be proactive – change, for example, the default password, as this can easily be compromised by cybercriminals.
Another top tip is to cover your webcam. While using tape as Zuckerberg did, works, you are probably better off investing in something that is more professional and easy to use. This means you can simply cover your camera when not in use.
We live in a world where innovation in technology is reshaping and enhancing the way we live. Smartphones let us do all sorts of things on the move, smart technologies let us talk to fridges and cars and webcams give us the opportunity to see more of our friends, family members, and colleagues, even though they are far and wide.
Yet, at the same time, cybercriminals are always looking at ways of exploiting technologies, meaning our fridges, our cars, and even our webcams. But, with a little bit of effort, and a security solution such as ESET Internet Security which comes with webcam protection, we can keep these threats at bay and enjoy all the perks that come with the latest gizmos.