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Should I Cover Up My Webcam When I’m Not Using It?

This is one of those “rules of thumb” that have come into existence in recent years that, in my opinion, is totally overblown.

Sadly, webcam manufacturers are feeding the paranoia by providing easy-to-use lens covers with their products. There’s nothing wrong with that, other than it does increase the apparent need for the practice (and perhaps the price).

Cover the webcam if you must, but you can probably guess what I’m about to say.

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You’re probably not that interesting

I have several cams — external cams, cams built into my display devices, cams built into my laptops, and probably more. There are two cameras in my mobile phone. They’re all uncovered all the time, even the one with a handy flip-over lens cover.

I’d be shocked if there was anyone who cared about what they might see.

WebcamHonestly, even if someone did manage to somehow surreptitiously turn one on (without an activation light, which isn’t always possible, depending on the hardware), and recorded what they saw, it’s not like they’d be getting blackmail material. At worst they might record me picking my nose while staring at my computer screen. More likely they’d just get a scary picture of my morning bed-head.1

I freely admit this is the “I’ve got nothing to hide” defense. But it’s paired with another.

Your security practices are probably doing their job

Any software that somehow activates your webcam (or microphone, or anything else on your computer) is by definition malicious software.

You take steps to prevent malware, yes? You’re following the recommendations outlined in my single most important Ask Leo! article, right?

  • Use a firewall (automatically the default under Windows).
  • Scan for malware (automatically the default under Windows).
  • Stay up-to-date (automatically the default under Windows).
  • Educate yourself (you’re reading Ask Leo!).
  • Secure your network (I’ve shown you how).
  • Don’t forget physical security (particularly important for portable devices).
  • Back up (something I harp on all the time).

If you’re doing all that, as I am, the chances of malware making it to your equipment are already low.

What if you are interesting?

Much of this paranoia came from a picture of Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg that showed his camera and microphone both covered.

I think it’s safe to say that Mr. Zuckerberg is what could be referred to as a “high value target”. What he says, what he does, and what those devices might record would be very, very interesting.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but … you’re no Zuckerberg. Don’t worry; neither am I.

But if, for some reason, you feel you are — that whatever you have to say is so incredibly valuable that capturing it would be valuable to others or damaging to yourself, then by all means… cover your camera. Unplug your microphone. Maybe don’t have a camera in your bedroom.

Oh, and turn off your phone when you’re not using it, also. (Something I expect Zuck’s not doing.)

Cover it up if you like

To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with covering your camera lens when you’re not using it. If it helps you sleep at night, go for it.

But in my opinion, there’s simply no need to worry or be paranoid about it.

Podcast audio

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Video Narration

Footnotes & references

1: The joy of a solo-preneur: bed-head can last all day!

21 comments on “Should I Cover Up My Webcam When I’m Not Using It?”

  1. My webcam light came on the other day and I couldn’t figure out how to switch it off! There seemed to be nothing available in the Logitec software to do that so I covered it up as I didn’t know why it came on!

  2. We may not be that interesting, but……. With websites like Shodan out there, and technically smart exes, it just makes sense to cover cameras. Ya just never know, eh.

  3. Great advice Leo although i cover my camera there are times i just don’t care, and mine being a business camera i highly doubt they could hack it anyhow, is the reason i bought it, but i just throw a handy cloth over the top of the thing when i’m not using , and that just mainly at night time as its in my room.

  4. I never use mine. I went in to the Device Manager on the laptop and actually disabled it. So not only would malware have to somehow make it on to my machine, it would also have to be smart enough to realize I have one that is disabled and enable it before turning it on.

  5. If anyone activated my camera, they’d die of boredom. It’s funny, so much hullabaloo about the camera when there’s so much more information someone could get on you through the mic. Oops, hope I didn’t just start a new panic.

  6. So occasionally when company laptops are returned to me for repair or replacement they have a bit of tape over the camera……. with one particularly paranoid employee who always tapes over his camera when i returned his new laptop i put a piece of paper taped over the a camera with the message “We can still hear you ” sent him into a bit of a tailspin…..

    Always amuses me a little as you indicated, what about the Phone …… 😉

    • “We can still hear you.”

      Good God. Are you kidding us?!

      We need insensitive people like you handling our computers as much as we need holes in our heads.

      Not only is that NOT funny, but if he complains to your superiors, it just might be enough to get you fired. Which (quite frankly) is exactly and precisely what I hope happens.

  7. Many years ago my father turned on his PC one morning and called to let us know that he was looking at my wife sitting in front of her PC. We never did figure out what his PC booted into or how my wife’s camera was activated (we suspect it had to do with Skype) but after that the camera shutter has remained closed when not in use.

  8. Zuckerberg didn`t make me wanna cover my web cam, the series “person of interest” did.
    that guy could access any camera anywhere in the world and turn it on. he could find
    anything he wanted to know about anybody. i know its just a show but it still makes you
    wonder. who wasn`t a little rattled after watching “the net”? or how about “halt, and catch fire”?
    within seconds those people could write code and make a computer do anything they wanted.

    • 1) It’s just a show. TV and Movies are notorious for over-stating the capabilities of tech in order to make for an exciting plot. I often have a hard time watching shows that feature technology like that as so many get it so wrong.

      2) Regardless, their fictional targets probably met some definition of “interesting”, like Zuckerberg would be. You and me? Not so much.

    • A bit off the subject, but a rant about Hollywood technology. My beef with The Net apart from just about everything in the movie was that Sandra Bullock was able to put an infected diskette into the system and bring the whole thing down. Even at that time, all major systems had several backup copies of everything. I was working for Texas Instruments when it came out. Our installation had nightly backups of everything and long term archival backup was in a mountain cave. After the virus destroyed their entire system, they would have been back up and running probably sometime the next day.

      • Leo and Mark, but the thing that i meant about the net was the way they could just wipe her out of existence and replace her with someone else. one has to wonder, can that be done? if you ever been arrested, the Gov`t has your photos and finger prints. if you`ve ever had a blood test the Gov`t has your DNA. maybe we`re not that interesting, but there`s no telling how useful a nobody can be.
        i`m not a conspiracy nut or anything, but it does make me think, one could be more interesting than we realize.

  9. So we are not that interesting…Is that why Microsoft and all those other companies keep spying on us?

    Everyone is interesting. People have been put in prison for owning gold right in America. You do not have to do something that is morally dubious in order to do something that is illegal or will be illegal in the future. No government is the benevolent god that many people believe their own government to be.

    And on a bigger scale information is the only way to control and manipulate a population. They need to spy on us in order to control us, and they need to control what we see. This is why we have things like Google and Facebook.

    • There’s a difference between being interesting as an individual versus as part of a larger group.

      By and large you and I are not interesting. We just aren’t. No one cares what I, specifically, searched for, what I bought, and so on.

      On the other hand, as part of a larger group, of course we’re interesting. “People who bought X often like Y”, so people who buy “X” suddenly start seeing “Y”. It’s not because they, as an individual, have been proactively targeted. It’s because anyone who falls into the group “people who bought X” have been.

      All of which brings me back to my statement: when it comes to our webcams — the subject of this article after all — most of us just aren’t that interesting.

  10. Let’s think ahead a little.
    – So, Apple, and others, are using facial recognition as pass keys. Get a picture of someone’s face and you have an entry pass key (after a little Photoshop manipulation).
    – Cameras in public places are used to scan people for facial recognition. Since a laptop or cell phone camera is nothing more than an IP address, why not also scan devices on the internet?
    – Boxes like Alexa are now embedding cameras. Most people will never have a clue, others won’t care, and others will be gradually indoctrinated to accept a camera looking at them all the time. So, your laptop camera won’t seem like a big deal.
    – Soon, laptop and phone camera will be moveable and will be able to scan around your home and see what cool stuff you have.

    It’s not about being interesting or not, it’s about more hooks into your life and your privacy. Each one of these intrusions can and will be exploited – guaranteed! Rather than saying “you’re not interesting”, a more accurate assessment is that you can’t do much about it. Sure, you can put a tape on your camera, but the camera can have IR capabilities and look through the tape to reconstruct your facial outline and dimensions. Another interesting development in home security is to replace the motion sensors with image processing cameras. The selling point will be that they won’t set off the alarm because they’ll recognize you (the homeowner). But guess what? They will be connected via WiFi to the rest of the world and your home’s interior video will be stored on some cloud storage. Just make sure you don’t run around the house in the buff.

    • I agree, it’s not just about laptops any more.
      An update for a ‘smart’ TV i had pointed me to a word-wall of terms and conditions, so i decided to read it. It stated that by clicking “i agree”, i agreed to the TV recording everything i say and storing it on remote servers to “build a library for a better user experience”. I clicked “i do not agree”, and almost all of the smart functions were disabled – whether i wanted use them via voice command or not.

    • Not to mention what Edward Snowden has told us or how EVERYDAY we learn there is some new way to track or “learn about” us. I’m not even going to get started on what was PROPHESIED thousands of years ago in the scriptures of how we’d be tracked in the future by the gov’t & more. By the way I do take all the precautions Leo cite, but I STILL cover my laptop & phone cameras when not using them. Just in case I’m interesting to who knows… uh someone?

  11. What about laptops supplied by schools to students. A few years back I read a story (Urban Legend?) about a student who had a school supplied laptop equipped with software so that a remote operator could switch the camera on to protect against theft. Unfortunately for that student, his image was captured while he was eating candy in his bedroom. The school administration concluded that the student was using drugs. I don’t recall the outcome and again maybe urban legend.

    In any event my computer doesn’t have a camera.

    • Whether or not it’s an urban legend, it’s entirely possible for the school to monitor that computer’s camera. I believe it’s an urban legend because it seems to me that it would be illegal to remotely use the camera remotely to spy on people’s personal activities. It also seems farfetched that they would conclude a kid eating candy were using drugs.

  12. Leo, I see the matter this way:

    Why bother taking a long, elaborate series of technical, electronically based steps, to mitigate a threat, when one simple, and purely physical, step can eliminate that threat completely?

    I nean, honestly — why bother? Just cover the damned thing, and be done with it! Sheesh!

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