Security: Is You WebCam Spying On You?

Can your Webcam be Used to Spy on You? A big story making the headlines this past week involves a school district in Pennsylvania that spies on its students, at home, by using the webcams in their school-issued laptop computers. A student has filed a lawsuit over it and according to reports, the FBI is investigating to determine whether federal laws against wiretapping or unauthorized computer access were broken. But there is more.

This story brings up quite a few issues. The school district representatives say they only activated the webcams in an attempt to find missing laptops. That makes me wonder whether, privacy issues aside for the moment, issuing laptops to students is a good idea or a silly one. Kids are kids, and kids lose and abuse "things." When a kid loses a $40 textbook, that's not good. When a kid loses a $400 laptop, that's much worse. The school claims that all 42 times it activated the remote software during the past 14 months, it was only to search for missing computers. 42 times $400 equals $16,800. If each of those incidences pertained to a different laptop, that's a significant chunk of change gone missing. Presumably those were tax dollars, unless someone donated the laptops to the district.

(Note: I used $400 as an example because you can get a decent medium-powered laptop for that amount. However, the computers in this case were Macs, so the retail value of the computers was much higher than that. The least expensive Macbook in the Apple Store is $999. At that price, we're talking almost $42,000).

Now, I understand the sentiments behind issuing the laptops. Certainly, in today's world, students need access to the Internet; any who don't have it will be at a major disadvantage in doing research for papers, etc. In a tough economic climate, some families may be unable to afford to buy their children computers. Giving all of the kids computers is intended to ensure "equal opportunity," to make sure they all have the means to do their work, regardless of how much money their families have or don't have. I get that (and I'll even restrain myself and not rant about how part of the reason families can't afford to buy the computers themselves is because they're paying outrageous school taxes).

But might it be both more economical and more all-round practical to issue each student a desktop computer instead of a laptop? I'm guessing the school already has computer labs that students can use when they're there. The laptops are to use at home. Desktop systems generally cost less for equal computing power, but more important, they aren't as fragile and portable so they're less likely to be broken or lost. It's also easier, with a desktop system that's in a fixed location in the home, for parents (those few who care to) to provide oversight when their kids are using the computer, thus helping to discourage bad online behavior.

Okay, so maybe there are advantages to a laptop. It's certainly easier for the kids to take them home in the first place; they're self-contained so you don't have to worry about parts and pieces - monitors, mice, keyboards, etc. - and you can get pretty cheap notebooks/netbooks these days. But do students really need systems that are decked out with webcams? Sure, they come built into most retail models, but I would guess it would be easy for a school district, buying hundreds of the things, to have the manufacturer supply systems that don't have that feature, or at least to disable the software/drivers that make it work. Because really, what do you think those adolescent and pre-adolescent kids are going to do with a webcam?

In fact, there have been numerous cases of teens sending webcam photos of themselves in inappropriate dress or sexually provocative poses to their friends. And even worse, webcams are a favorite tool of online pedophiles and child pornographers. They usually gain access to the child's webcam through social engineering tactics (persuasion, or even offering the child money to engage in webcam sessions).

The bad guys can also use technological means to view the child's webcam, sending email or an IM with a link that downloads malware called RATs (Remote Access Trojans) to the child's computer, which activates the camera. Of course, if someone has physical access to the computer (like the IT person at the school district that issued the computers to students), that person can install software that will let him/her remotely control the webcam at will. In the Pennsylvania case, students reported that the lights on their webcams would turn on frequently.

It's bad enough that a school district, an entity that's entrusted with the care of children, might stoop to possibly illegal means to spy on them, but at least they are ostensibly doing it to keep the kids out of trouble. But the broader point is that it's not just students with school-issued laptops who are vulnerable to this type of spying. Anyone who owns a computer with a webcam attached could have photos or videos of him/herself in the hands of strangers without even knowing it ever happened.

Do you sit at the computer unclothed? Make funny faces while you're typing? Pick your nose? Having a bad hair day? Think it doesn't matter because you're all alone in the privacy of your own home? If you have a webcam, your home might not be as private as you think. Some people routinely turn their webcams toward a wall or ceiling when they aren't using them, or cover them with something (some even have lens caps). If you're a little more paranoid, you might want to unplug it altogether.

Another point that often isn't mentioned is that many webcams have built-in microphones, or you may have a separate microphone that's turned on. So even if you can't be seen, it's possible for an outsider to listen in on any sounds that occur in the vicinity of your computer. Answer the phone and have a conversation while sitting in front of the system? Talk with someone else who comes into the room? Play your favorite heavy metal music while you're working? Well, at least that last one might discourage eavesdroppers. Seriously, though, it's important to remember that if you're able to access the outside world, the outside world may be able to access you.

RATs have been around for many years. One of the first to become well known was Back Orifice. RATs can capture screen content, sound and video, log keystrokes, even ferret out your passwords. Early RATs used ICQ, IRC and other Internet communications technologies that were popular at the time, to communicate with the malware author or distributor.

Some RATs may even come with your hardware. Earlier this month, IT World reported that some "gifts" distributed by the Chinese to British businesspeople at trade fairs and exhibitions, including memory sticks and cameras, contained Trojans that provided the Chinese with remote access to users' computers when those devices were hooked up to the system.

So what do you think? If your child's school issued a laptop with a webcam, would you tape over it or otherwise attempt to disable it? Would you send the computer back and say "no, thanks?" Is it okay for schools to spy on students as long as they notify parents and get their permission? Or are you afraid that those doing the "watching" might not be entirely trustworthy? Do you have a webcam? Do you cover it or unplug it when you're not using it? Do you think the dangers of webcams have been blown out of proportion? Or should they be banned from computers used by kids? Should they at least carry a warning label?