Tape over your laptop camera? Why it’s not paranoid at all

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  • June 30, 2016

A photo circulating online of Mark Zuckerberg’s personal laptop has ignited a conversation about data security and how people can protect themselves against hackers.

The photo shows a smiling Zuckerberg sitting next to his laptop. But the curious thing is that his computer’s camera and microphone are covered with tape.

Covering a computer’s camera doesn’t protect the device from being hacked. On the flip side, it does prevent a hacker from being able to see whatever the camera sees. Covering a laptop’s microphone can muffle the audio enough to prevent a hacker from listening in, uninvited.

Several security experts say it’s not paranoid — it’s good sense. Even if you’re not a high-profile target like Zuckerberg.

“It’s just preventative maintenance — it removes the doubt of, ‘what if somebody got into his system,'” said Dave Lewis, a global security advocate who works for Akamai Technologies.

Lewis said he’s been covering the cameras on his own computers with Post-it notes since the early 2000s.

“The easiest way to remove that lingering doubt is to just slap some tape over it. Problem solved.”


How it works

A hacker can get access to your entire computer, without your knowledge, relatively easily, through dodgy email links, for example.

“When you click on that link, something installs in the background because, by virtue of your action, you’ve allowed the software to install on your system,” said Lewis.

In security testing, Lewis said he’s been able to breach a system and take control of a person’s laptop camera without their knowledge.

“And it doesn’t even always trip the light that shows the camera is live,” he added.

In a way, the Zuckerberg photo confirms that nothing is really safe online. For all the anti-virus software out there, a piece of tape may be one of the most effective tools available.


Air gapping

The idea that someone could hack a laptop camera is particularly unsettling given the fact that many people keep their laptops in their living rooms and bedrooms. Hackers could use photos or information from the computer for extortion.

And it’s also incredibly invasive.

Sauter says using a physical object such as tape is a good form of extra security. She said this is similar to the concept of “air gapping,” which is when computers are not connected to the internet in any way — this prevents any hacker from being able to access the computer’s files via the internet.

“It’s physical security that seems really basic, but it’s also the most secure,” she said.

Similarly, putting a Post-it or a piece of tape over a laptop’s camera is lo-fi, but it offers good physical protection. Sauter said she’s been covering her laptop camera for the past four or five years.


Best steps to protect yourself

Lewis said the steps a person can take to protect against this kind of intrusion depends on the level of risk they’re comfortable with.

“If they have a bad habit of walking around the house naked, or giving out secrets like their banking information, absolutely [cover the camera],” he said.

Sauter suggests using two-step authentication processes for email and social media accounts.

She also recommends the tape method — just don’t use the clear kind.

Tape over your laptop camera? Why it's not paranoid at all
Tape over your laptop camera? Why it's not paranoid at all
Covering a laptop camera doesn't protect the device from being hacked, but it does prevent a hacker from being able to see whatever the camera sees.
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