Are hackers really spying on people through their phone cameras and webcams? The short answer: Yes. Webcams and phone cameras can be hacked, giving bad actors complete control over how they function. As a result, hackers can use a device’s camera to both spy on individuals and search for personal information. Luckily, there are steps you can take to prevent or identify this type of activity on your phone and computer.
What can a hacker do with your device’s camera?
If a hacker gains access to your device, they may be able to turn your camera on and off, look directly through it, take photos with it, or even listen in on you using your device’s microphone. The good news (if you can call it that) is that modern devices use an indicator light or icon whenever the camera is active. If you see this light appear at random, when you know none of your trusted apps are using the camera, you might have a problem.
If a hacker breaks into your device, they’re probably looking for specific information, rather than to simply spy on you in general. In most cases, though, hackers aren’t targeting individuals. Instead, they go after security camera data held by big businesses—in one instance, giving them access to hundreds of hours of records from 150,000 security cameras in hospitals, warehouses and, jails.
Still, individuals are targeted by hackers, as well. Malware and other malicious files can give hackers access to your camera, in addition to passwords or important information you have stored on your phone or computer. Cybersecurity best practices help you protect your computer from these files—or identify them if your computer is infected.
Facial recognition and productivity trackers
Major organizations may also use cameras to track individuals. Many universities are beginning to consider using facial recognition systems that track students and faculty with on-campus cameras.
Privacy experts have raised similar concerns about new productivity tracking tools that have emerged over the past few years. Most productivity trackers aren’t too complex. They simply track the activity on an employee’s computer—like keystrokes and mouse movements—and report the percentage of time that employee is considered active. The software may also take screenshots that are stored online for managers to review.
However, newer trackers are beginning to experiment with somewhat more invasive techniques, including webcams to monitor employee attentiveness.
According to market research company Gartner, around 60% of large employers use productivity-tracking software to keep tabs on their employees—though most of these employers are likely using the simpler tracking software. Regulations limit what employers can and cannot track, but you may not be protected by the law depending on where you live.
How to keep your device from becoming a spy camera
If you’re concerned about how your webcam may impact your privacy, there are some simple steps you can take to make it hard for others to use your camera maliciously.
Laptop webcam privacy covers are small pieces of plastic that fit over your camera and slide open or shut. While closed, they’ll prevent the camera from seeing anything—even if it’s turned on. These covers are affordable and can be found in most electronics stores or online. Just know, though, that a cover alone won’t prevent hackers from listening in on you or otherwise using your computer if your device is compromised.
Turning your laptop or phone off while it isn’t in use will also prevent hackers from using your camera. However, a hibernating or “sleeping” device may still be vulnerable.
Security strategies can also prevent or identify camera breaches
General cybersecurity best practices, as well as those noted by the CISA, will help you ensure a hacker isn’t using your camera. Knowing how to tell if your computer is infected is essential.
If your webcam light turns or flashes when you’re not using it—for example, if you’re not in a Zoom meeting or testing the camera—that could be a sign it’s being accessed by a hacker or malware. If you notice this happening, check your device’s camera permissions to see which apps and services are using it:
- Windows: Start > Settings > Privacy & security > Camera.
- Mac: System Preferences > Security & Privacy > Camera.
- Android: Settings > Privacy > Permission manager > Camera.
- iOS: Settings > Privacy > Camera.
You might be surprised by what you see here. Disable permission for any app or service you don’t want using your camera. Skype? Good. Random app you’ve never heard of? Bad.
Monitoring your phone or computer for unusual storage files, strange network activity, and unknown applications may also help you spot the after-effects of malware.
For the most part, you shouldn’t need to download another Windows antivirus program. While built-in tools like Windows Defender haven’t always been effective, current versions are comparable with most commercial antiviruses. Ensuring your antivirus is running regular scans should protect your computer from most threats, as long as you avoid suspicious links and files while browsing the web (please, don’t click on weird links).
On Mac, consider enabling Firewall. This built-in feature blocks connections from the internet and other devices to unauthorized apps and services, which can help prevent camera-spying malware. You’ll find this option in System Preferences > Security & Privacy > Firewall.
When in doubt, seek professional help
If your system seems to have a virus that your antivirus can’t catch, you can bring your computer to a trusted repair store or cybersecurity expert for a closer look. Cybersecurity is no joke, and hackers are getting sneakier; sometimes, the best approach to identifying and removing camera-spying malware is to take the machine to a trained professional.