Safe Webcam use: Who is Watching You?

Webcam surrounded by different devices

It may have been the Jetsons that first introduced us to the idea of having phone conversations accompanied by live video. It would take decades, though, for the reality to come into being. The webcam connected to your computer is capable of streaming live video calls, letting you broadcast live videos on Facebook, or just post videos of yourself to YouTube and other outlets. If you value your privacy, however, you might have some concerns over whether your webcam is truly secure. Protect yourself from webcam hacking in a few simple steps.

Webcam Spying – Reality or Paranoia?

It might seem that worrying about someone spying on you through your webcam is a bit paranoid and perhaps taking privacy concerns too far. However, alert Instagram users in 2016 spotted tape over the webcam of a computer in the background of a photo of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2016. Moreover, FBI Director James Comey has told people publicly that taking such measures is simply sensible. So maybe the thought isn’t that crazy.

In many cases, it is laughably easy for a hacker to gain control over your webcam. In fact, many hackers do so merely for entertainment. Secret recordings of people in compromising positions can also be profitable on pornography sites or on the dark web. While many may prefer not to contemplate the idea, those concerned with privacy can find simple ways to make webcam use safe.

Who Can Gain Access to Your Webcam?

Gaining access to your webcam can be as simple as a small bit of code. All a rogue agent needs to access your device is just a small crack in your security. Once in, they can widen the gap to gain fuller access. With all the different types of malware around you may never find out where a virus came from. Cybercrime is ever evolving and we need to keep up the pace. Here are some of the most common ways in which a hacker might get access to your webcam.

Remote PC Technician

Anyone who has had access to your computer remotely can potentially come back later to access your webcam. Remote computer repairs are common. Technicians logg on to your computer and address problems with your software without ever having to come to your home. While these service providers attempt to screen their employees, even the best screening methods will fail to catch every bad apple. A simple bit of code left behind on your computer could allow the technician to access your computer again later.

Infected Email

spamEmails can easily contain attachments that have infectious code built in. The sender doesn’t need to have very complex code to gain minimal access to your computer. Once their foot is in the door, even a mildly competent hacker may be able to gain access to your webcam and other information on your computer.

Malicious Websites

Hackers often invest trivial amounts of money in buying a web domain that is very close to the domain name of a popular website. Only their website has a small misspelling. Reverse two letters and you are suddenly on a website that can deliver just enough code to allow access to your computer.

Links sent through email or over social media can also get unsuspecting users to land on a malicious website. All the hacker needs is for you to land on their site just once. This is enough to deliver the code that will open the back door for them to gain access later.

What Devices Are at Risk?

Any device you use that has a camera can potentially be hacked into for malicious use. All the same tricks mentioned above will work with almost any device. While some are more difficult to crack, the reality is that any device can be hacked eventually. Hackers work tirelessly to develop new methods to access your devices. Whether you are using a desktop computer, a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone, someone can potentially be watching you through your webcam. However, by taking the right steps to protect your devices you can scare off most hackers.

How Can I Protect Myself?

One surefire way of preventing unauthorized use of your webcam has already been mentioned. A simple piece of tape over the lens will certainly work. The drawback of course is that you can’t use it either. If you regularly enjoy the use of Skype, taking pictures or videos with your camera, or streaming live videos on social media, you might be disappointed to have to give up your webcam entirely.

Keeping your antivirus programs up-to-date is always good advice and can help protect you against known threats to your computer’s security. Additionally, keeping your device’s operating system up-to-date with the latest patches will help guard your device from unauthorized entry.

Always be suspicious of links in emails from users you don’t know, for it could be phishing. Remember, if an email looks fishy, it’s better to leave it unopened than to risk infection. If you think a company may have sent you an email, contact them directly to address the issue rather than risking opening a potentially harmful email.

How a VPN May Be the Best Guard for Your Webcam

For a hacker to gain access to your computer and your webcam, they often need one critical piece of information – your IP address. Your IP address is the unique code that identifies the location of your device in cyberspace. For any program to send information to your computer online, they must have this address.

VPN-connection-InternetA VPN protects your webcam by keeping your IP address hidden. When you use a quality VPN service, your request for information is encrypted to the VPN server. The VPN then forwards the request for information which is sent back to the IP address of the VPN server – not directly to you. The VPN then encrypts the information and sends it to you. Any malicious code attempting to gain access to your webcam only has the IP address of your VPN server. This information is almost useless to hackers as a VPN will often handle hundreds of other clients through its servers at any given time. The hacker cannot pinpoint your device, and so cannot gain access to your webcam.

A VPN provides many additional benefits in securing your privacy and giving you access to video streaming services restricted to limited geographic areas. For more information on how a VPN can guard your privacy, see our article on the ins and outs of VPNs.

Tech journalist
Tove has been working for VPNoverview since 2017 as a journalist covering cybersecurity and privacy developments. She has broad experience developing rigorous VPN testing procedures and protocols for our VPN review section and has tested dozens of VPNs over the years.