When you walk around an office or café, you’ll often see people using an array of items to cover up their webcam. Sometimes it’s tape, post-it notes, folded business cards, stickers, their thumb, or a marlin. I smear peanut butter over my webcam, but chunky peanut butter. It’s more secure than smooth.
None of those items came with the laptop upon purchase, and it’s easy to make fun of putting something there as paranoid. The idea that someone wants to look through your particular webcam seems a bit narcissistic and on edge, as if we’re leaving our house and saying to one in particular, “Please, no cameras.”
But while it’s absurd that people are putting tape over their webcams, it’s doubly absurd that it’s actually kind of a good idea.
Webcam Hacking Is a Real Thing
Almost anything can be hacked, and that’s not just the title of my upcoming children’s pop-up book. Over the years, there has been a slew of stories about webcams being hijacked by those looking to spy on unsuspecting people, often people they know. In 2009 a student discovered his school-provided laptop was secretly photographing him (without giving any extra credit!), and many women have seen their webcams hacked, with the situation often escalating into blackmail.
At the federal level (this can’t be good), secret documents have shown the NSA gaining backdoor access to web cameras and Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ doing the same, all of the spying being done without the courtesy of the webcam indicator light activating. That is so rude.
Even without the countless horrifying stories, the idea of a webcam on your laptop is a bit weird to begin with. There’s essentially a camera pointed at your face at all times. Not your shin, not your elbow, not your toes–your face. And we bought it. We all went to a store and basically said, “One camera always pointed at my face, please.”
Granted, I’m well aware that no one is interested in looking at me. That was evident in high school. This so-called threat is much worse for women and people with kids, and I am neither the last time I checked. It’s still quite rare for a webcam to be hacked, and I always feel a bit silly when I drape something over my webcam like it’s a parrot at bedtime.
Perhaps it’s more the principle. For years, I owned a laptop that didn’t have a webcam and enjoyed pretending in work meetings that my connection was bad, and I will often head to a real human cashier at a grocery store instead of using one of those self-checkouts that creepily displays your image back to you. The expression on my face when I’m buying Bagel Bites at one in the morning is a piece of information I didn’t need.
What You Can Do
While we all know there are cameras everywhere, it seems somewhat natural to do what we can to prevent a few of them from looking at us. Even Mark Zuckerberg—the guy with more information on people than the Library of Congress—puts tape over his webcam.
Fortunately, along with items like gum and blankets, you can buy little webcam-blocking clips that give you the option of whether you’re in the mood to be spied on. More laptops should just come with them built in. Your webcam can be disabled as well, and it’s often best to have an antivirus as backup. And if you can, just try to be really boring in front of it.
Feel free to feel silly when blocking your webcam, but be silly and safe. If your webcam is covered with a plate of osmium wrapped in blackout curtains and sealed with one of those tire clamps, I won’t judge.
Just don’t be surprised if one day hackers find a way to also poke it off.