James Comey, who heads up the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), recently made an interesting remark during his presentation about encryption and technology at a college in Ohio, US. He admitted that, in order to protect his privacy, he puts tape over his laptop’s camera.
The FBI director’s revelation created a buzz among information security professionals. Some have accused Mr. Comey of creating a “warrant-proof webcam” – preventing himself from being able to deliver evidence, should he be investigated.
“Although in this case the sentiment was pretty lighthearted, the mood echoes the efforts of the authorities of several countries’ to adopt legislation mandating that service providers and equipment manufacturers maintain the ability for police and security services to access any communication.
(Of course, putting a tape over a webcam prevents evidence from coming into existence, which is different from making the evidence inaccessible through end-to-end encryption.)
“In order to prevent a webcam from being turned into a tool for spying, appropriate measures should be taken.”
Jokes aside, the FBI director’s security measure is well-informed. The FBI has long known about the technology needed to remotely activate a computer’s camera without the user’s knowledge. If software called a remote administration tool (RAT) is installed on a system that has a camera, it can capture video — without triggering the recording light — and subsequently send that video out over internet. ESET researchers have been studying police use of this type of malware for many years. For example, see this 2009 white paper and this 2014 article which discusses an FBI takedown of a RAT.
In order to prevent a webcam from being turned into a tool for spying, appropriate measures should be taken. For most scenarios, quality security software – if kept updated – should be enough. These programs work to block any unauthorized installation of software on your machines regardless of whether it is coming from criminals or law enforcement. And for those who wish to eliminate even the smallest remaining risk, Mr. Comey’s solution does make sense.