The Fight for Privacy is Both Global and Personal
I keep a piece of tape over my webcam. It’s not aesthetically pleasing, and I don’t like it, but I also didn’t like the stories about schools spying on students through a webcam, or an extortionist snapping photos of Cassidy Wolf, Miss Teen USA 2013, through her webcam. At first I felt silly and paranoid for covering my cam, but a quick Google search will show you that everyday folks are also being targeted by stalkers, hackers and, as we now know, even the government.
The technology to spy using webcams has existed for well over a decade, but only in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks and resulting uproar over government spying have some companies started capitalizing on our justifiable paranoia. We’re all worried now about the government sticking their nose into our lives but for many of us the risk is even greater from the average bad guy hacker. Cyber extortion is on the rise against both companies and individuals and it’s incredibly hard to track once it’s begun; it can come from next door or far overseas.
While individuals fight these small time felons organizations are taking on the government on a much grander stage – the federal courts. The ACLU and Electronic Freedom Foundation are among the American organizations to file lawsuits against the National Security Agency; now Privacy International has joined the fight by filing with the United Kingdom’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) to stop surveillance by GCHQ, the UK’s national security agency. The IPT is a specialized court and the only place complaints can be filed against the intelligence system.
The lawsuit against GCHQ stems from information in the documents released by Snowden. This suit focuses on call recording but like the NSA the agency is accused of many things, including:
- taking over a device's microphone and webcam to record conversations and take photos
- recording Internet browsing histories and collecting website and email login details
- logging keystrokes
- extracting data from flash drives connected to infected computers
- identifying the geographic whereabouts of the user
- retrieving text messages, e-mails, web history, call records, videos, photos, address books, notes, and calendars from mobile devices
While those battles are waged in the court there are two simple things all computer users can do to at least guard against lone snoops and creeps who want to gain access to personal information: protect your camera and your microphone.
A simple piece of tape will work (maybe leaving a little residue to wipe off), but if you don’t like that look you can get everything from specially cut Hello Kitty stickers to plastic slide covers to protect your webcam. Don’t rely on the indicator light and think the camera is off if it’s not illuminated, the best hackers have gotten around that and can watch in complete anonymity.
Even the experts agree that protecting your microphone is much harder since, even if you turn it off, you’ll never know if it’s turned back on. The best defense is to take an old, unused external mic, cut the cord at the plug and leave it plugged into the mic jack. No microphone means no sound can be transmitted, though that obviously won’t protect you when you actually do use the mic.
Overall we have to train computer users at every stage to be vigilant. Thinking of the Internet as a safe place is as risky as leaving the front door to a home unlocked. A small, simple bit of protection now can save infinite time and heartache later.
Edited by Alisen Downey