I’ve been thinking about how much more of my communication is done digitally lately. Long gone are the days of writing letters, reading the personals, and having to remember phone numbers. These things have moved aside to make room for emails, instant messaging, Craigslist, and my contacts list, with its seemingly infinite capacity to remember exactly how to reach everyone I’ve ever made eye contact with. I then got to thinking about how glad I am to be able to Skype my family, and all of the fun videos I’ve made with my son on photo-booth, pretending to be deep-sea diving or on a roller coaster. I remember growing up and watching The Jetsons, dreaming of the day live video calls were possible. Now they are, and they’re wonderful, but they all interact with the camera that’s spending most of the day right in front of my face. I had to stop and wonder how much Internet privacy that little camera affords me, and what would happen if that was compromised?
For all the good that camera does me, letting me all but sit in the living room with my mother across the country, I realized it could do a lot of damage to my reputation online if someone I didn’t want having access to it did. There are all sorts of embarrassing moments that camera has seen while hopefully remaining off. I like to sing while I work sometimes, it helps me think, and every once in a while that turns into me spinning around in my desk chair belting “Owner of a Lonely Heart” with my favorite pen standing in as a microphone. While harmless enough, I’m a professional, and I’d prefer if that wasn’t what a potential client found while they were searching my name to see if I’m trustworthy enough to do business with. I also, for example, like to listen to music while I shower, so I often bring my computer into the bathroom with me. I’ve seen nude photographs both launch and destroy careers, and if you’ve watched the news any time recently I’m sure you have too. If some computer hacking pervert were to post pictures of me captured without my consent in the shower online I would feel incredibly violated, and I’m also pretty certain they wouldn’t help me professionally at all.
Now that I’d considered how harmful it could be, I needed to understand how possible it was. I’ve certainly seen friends get their share of malware, a little negligence on the user end can certainly go pretty far for those who wish to exploit you. I’ve found that there aren’t very many reports of it, but that there are certainly cases of it happening. It’s apparently entirely possible, and not actually that difficult, if you target someone who doesn’t exactly worry about the security of their computer. It can be as simple as getting your victim to download a piece of software or run an application, and once they’ve run it from their computer control is yours. There are pieces of software that, once on your computer, afford total control of most of its features, the webcam being no exception. The user who has taken over can, in what seems to be the common circumstance for this type of thing, snap still images through your webcam, and also stream and record live video feeds. Perhaps the creepiest feature, in my eyes, is the fact that this can be done with no alert to you. The webcam can be run without the indicator light that often accompanies it, and it certainly doesn’t make a shutter noise. What really makes me nervous, though, is how easy it was to track down the software that enables this. I found several communities with just some light searching that offered programs like these, other virus-like software, and various means of committing computer piracy all for free.
Knowing it’s an issue, taking basic computer security measures can help you avoid web hackers pretty easily. If you follow the well known guidelines out there, don’t download content from any sources you don’t trust, don’t open attachments from any email senders you aren’t sure of, don’t run applications you don’t recognize, install a security program, etc, then you should be safe and sound with your dignity and Internet privacy intact.