Facebook says that it will be turning on your microphone on your smartphone –for what reason, we have no idea but can guess. Turning on cameras and microphones is becoming a huge problem.


Szymon Sidor is a Polish-born software engineering genius currently working for Dropbox as an intern –before that he served two internships with Google working on Google Chrome ®  and Google Analytics ® . Now he is working on his PhD at MIT and he writes a blog called “Snacks for Your Mind.” Sidor’s latest “snack” is a demonstration of how the cameras on your Android ®  smartphone can be turned on without you knowing it, and sequential photos sent to a third party over the Internet. Along with the photos, data on your location is displayed in the intercept so you can be easily tracked. All this happens without any awareness by the phone user –the screen can either be turned off or on, it does not matter. Szymon  has gotten around the Android requirement to display any photo preview on the screen by reducing the preview to only one pixel, which you won’t notice even when your screen is on. On top of this, his solution has gone around Android’s notification that an APP is running, so you cannot even check to see if this brilliant piece of software “mal-engineering” is running.

Spying through cameras on smartphones and webcams on computers and laptops, as well as tablets, today is widespread. GCHQ,  Britain’s NSA, ran a program called “Optic Nerve.” Optic Nerve scanned live on line webcam chats on Yahoo and probably other chat services between 2008 and 2012. Many of these images were very personal ones, and could be used to either embarrass or blackmail users. Reports in the UK say that NSA engineers helped GCHQ develop the Optic Nerve program. Many have either claimed or speculated that one way the NSA and other U.S. spy agencies got around the prohibition of spying on Americans was to let a third party do it for them. A recent case involving a U.S. law firm representing Indonesian interests was bugged by the Australia Australian Signals Directorate. Special intelligence cooperation occurs under the “Five Eyes” program. The cooperating countries are the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

News reports, based on the leaks of NSA information by Edward Snowden, says that GCHQ  stored millions of images gleaned from its webcam surveillance. These images can be retrieved in various ways, including the use of advanced face recognition systems, so seemingly unrelated video chats from different computers and with different names or web addresses, can be linked together. Obviously, when used correctly and legally, this is an important counter-terrorism tool. But when it is used as a political tool to harass to blackmail people, the consequences are different and corrosive. A problem the U.S. government still has, new legislation notwithstanding, is how to assure the proper use of information that can be very personal and completely unrelated to any counter terrorism or criminal activity.

It is not only the NSA or GCHQ that can spy on webcams. Marcus Thomas, a former assistant director of the FBI’s Operational Technology Division in Quantico,Virginia, told the Washington Post that the FBI could spy on anyone’s webcam without turning on the camera’s indicator light. While not all webcams have indicator lights, and many laptops do not have them at all, the indicator light is a nice security feature that tells you when the camera is active. Webcam spying is part of a suite of so-called Remote Access Tools or RATS. Thomas told the Post that the FBI has had these tools for years but uses “Rattingly” (the webcam spying tool) sparingly.

But camera spying is not at all limited to governments or official spy agencies and organizations. It is so widespread today that it has even spread to schools. Just this year Lower Merion Township, a classy suburb of Philadelphia, settled a lawsuit, brought by two students, paying them $610,000 in compensation. The crime? The school provided 2,300 MacBooks® to their students and installed spy software on them that snapped pictures of the students. Photos of the students included snaps of them at home, in bed, sometimes partially clothed. In one case the school claimed a student was “popping” pills: in fact he was eating candy.

“Sextortion” is a growing problem. What is Sextortion? Sextortion is the secret control of webcams or smartphone cameras to run extortion rackets against people. A major case gained notoriety in California where a now-20 year old Jared Abrahams ” illegally hacked into the laptops of several young women in the U.S. and abroad, then took control of their webcams in order to film and photograph them while they undressed” according to the FBI. The scam included web cam pictures of Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf, who was a classmate of Abrahams. “Abrahams threatened to post the images to the victim’s social media accounts unless the women provided additional nude photos/videos or obeyed his commands during a five-minute Skype session” Abrahams was convicted and got an 18 month jail sentence. In another case, a Glendale California man was sentenced to five years in federal prison Monday after pleading guilty in a sextortion case that targeted hundreds of women. Interpol announced the arrest of 58 persons in the Philippines for sextortion, including one case where a17-year-old victim committed suicide in July last year following blackmailing by the group. In fact, “The scale of these sextortion networks is massive, and run with just one goal in mind: to make money regardless of the terrible emotional damage they inflict on their victims,” says Sanjay Virmani, director of the Interpol Digital Crime Center.

Webcams and phone cams are also an important source for corporate spying. This works in two ways: companies and organizations spying on their own employees, and competitors and thieves spying on corporations. By being able to activate either a webcam or microphone on a PC, laptop or smartphone, intruders can listen in on sensitive meetings and conversations and even know where the meetings are held, who attended, and everything about what was discussed.

There are plenty of vendors selling spy software, some designed for “professional” business use and marketed as a way to track employees, such as a product for employee monitoring made by InterGuard. Such spying falls into a gray legal area, but once it goes onto a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet it clearly intrudes on privacy outside of the work space. Even so, this is an unsettled area in U.S. law.  It is of course illegal to record a conversation without getting the permission of the person or persons being recorded, but keep in mind even web conferencing software allows for proceedings to be recorded and no permission is asked. These days there are hundreds of spying products to choose from, and the best of them facilitate surreptitious webcam and mobile cam spying.

Corporate spying can facilitate “insider” trading, where the “insider” is sitting outside but has privileged access to your webcam or mobile camera and microphone. No one knows the extent of financial manipulation and computer and smartphone spying going on that facilitates insider trading, stock exchange manipulation, and trading of sensitive investment and competitive information.

It is legal to sell spy software, just illegal to use it without permission outside the workplace, unless it is used to spy by parents on their minor children. Even this “permission” is fraught with difficulty, since other kids who are not related to the parents may well be captured while the parents spy on their children.

In short, there is an epidemic of webcam and smartphone camera monitoring and spying and such spying affects everyone. Our laws have a long way to go to catch up to the reality of this powerful attack on personal privacy.

What can you do? One “solution” often proposed is to cover up the webcam on your PC or laptop. This does stop the camera, but does nothing about the microphone, but it is a partial answer providing you remember to do it religiously. But with the number of devices in homes and offices, it is not simple to manage. And tablets and smartphones often have two cameras, one in front and one on the back. Covering both is awkward and probably unrealistic.

A second solution is to get positive control over cameras and microphones so malware and intruders can’t switch them on. One product for Android is Office Anti-Spy. It makes sure the cameras and microphones are turned off and nothing can be recorded. This solution trumps Szymon Sidor’s brilliant Android hack, and other RAT tools that try to control your device.

Most important of all is to realize that the world is seething with snoops, provocateurs and criminals. No one, neither school children, teenagers, adults, corporate tycoons or government officials can escape them or live in this world unnoticed.

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2 thoughts on “YOUR CAMERA IS ON, BEWARE!

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