When whistleblower Edward Snowden released classified NSA documents in May 2013, the world suddenly became acutely aware of government surveillance of civilians—even of those who posed no threat to national security.
According to the Guardian, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, the UK version of the NSA) “files dating between 2008 and 2010 explicitly state that a surveillance program code-named Optic Nerve collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were an intelligence target or not.” Disturbingly, many of these images, it is reported, are explicit in nature. And, of course, it’s not just the government: hackers have also figured out ways to spy via webcam.
Unlike many viruses, Mac webcams are just as vulnerable as those installed in PCs. Most laptops with built-in cameras come with an important privacy feature: a light that activates when the camera is in use, with seemingly no way to be deactivated. Information to the contrary has come to light, however. As quoted in the Washington Post, “Marcus Thomas, former assistant director of the FBI’s Operational Technology Division in Quantico, said in a recent story in The Washington Post that the FBI has been able to covertly activate a computer’s camera — without triggering the light that lets users know it is recording — for several years.”
Since the release of the Snowden documents and what’s come to light in their aftermath, we’ve learned much more about the extent to which monitoring occurs, and have become more vigilant about online and network security, as well as the processes our computers employ while in use.
While technical fixes exist to remedy this situation, sometimes an easy, old-fashioned approach is the most effective: physically obstructing the webcam while not in use. This can be accomplished by simply placing a post-it note over the lens, though more creative options are readily available on Etsy, including puffy felt stickers, snap-on plastic covers, and, of course, hand-crocheted ghost cozies.
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