Could my webcam be compromised?

A compromised webcam could pose significant security risks even if you don a disguise, so ensure video cameras on web-enabled devices are functioning normally

Tuesday, 23 June, 2020

As a society, we are under surveillance more than ever before.

The UK has one of the world’s highest concentrations of CCTV cameras, and millions of people have willingly brought devices into their homes which listen to everything they say.

The only reason Amazon smart speakers can instantly process instructions following the word “Alexa” is because our every utterance is being silently monitored.

Allied to online activity tracking by ISPs, service providers like Google and agents of the state, privacy is conspicuous by its absence.

In fact, it could be even worse than you think.

Webcam hacking is perpetrated on a daily basis by cybercriminals around the world.

Accessing a compromised device’s camera could let crooks record what they see before threatening to publish the footage unless the victim pays a ransom in untraceable bitcoin.

A compromised webcam may be used to obtain images of an unwitting victim for fraud, catfishing or identity theft.

It could facilitate stalking, spying on household movements in preparation for burglary, or even the illicit recording of young children.

But how can you tell if there’s a compromised webcam in your home? And what can be done to protect your privacy in a home filled with cameras capable of silently recording you?

Unless you want to wear a mask all day as a disguise, it’s crucial to optimise webcam security and minimise unnecessary risk.

Signs of a compromised webcam

  1. The webcam indicator light or integral flash comes on without prompting, even though the computer isn’t running any programs or utilities which might need camera access.
  2. Browsers trigger the webcam. Malware often targets web browsers like Chrome, Safari and Firefox. Does the camera come on every time you launch a browser window?
  3. The webcam app won’t activate because it’s already in use. Unless an authorised app is hogging the camera, this could suggest there’s a problem.
  4. Mysterious files appear. Webcams generally save to device internal storage, such as This PC > Videos in Windows 10. If you didn’t record mysterious files, who did?
  5. Webcam accessibility has been tampered with. Have camera security settings been disabled, or has antivirus software suddenly stopped protecting the webcam?
  6. Antivirus software flags issues. Speaking of AV software, it might not specifically identify webcam issues, but flagged threats and reported issues indicate problems.
  7. Extortion attempts. Finally, we reach the criminal’s nuclear option – demands for money “or else”. These will almost certainly be exaggerated, and you should never pay up.

Be safe, not sorry

There are easy ways to maximise security while using hardware fitted with integral webcams.

(If they’re standalone devices, simply unplug them when not in use).

Firstly, some wraparound protective cases cover webcams, either accidentally or by design.

Masking tape, folded business cards and purpose-made camera covers perform a similar job with varying degrees of elegance.

Position devices lens-down when not in use, plunging them into darkness rather than providing a panoramic view of everything you do.

Only grant camera access to programs which need it. Many apps automatically ask for privileges they neither need nor deserve.

A firewall can prevent suspicious connections being established, while antivirus software should protect PCs and Macs against unwarranted webcam activation.

Be wary of insecure public WiFi networks, which are vulnerable to hacking.

Finally, be suspicious of unsolicited contact from strangers offering to fix IT issues or resolve security breaches.

Clicking hyperlinks or installing software could actually grant a criminal control over your device – and its camera.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!