Your digital device may be exposing more about you than you thought. Social media sites, apps, government agencies, and malware can all get access to and lift information from your laptop or smartphone.
Who could be accessing your camera and microphone?
Apps like Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Viber
Felix Krause – founder of Fastlane, an open source tool that assists system developers such as Android and iOS build and release mobile phone apps – described in 2017 that when a user grants an app access to their microphone and camera, the app could do the following:
- access both the front and the back camera
- record you at any time the app is in the foreground
- take pictures and videos without telling you
- upload the pictures and videos without telling you
- upload the pictures/videos it takes immediately
- run real-time face recognition to detect facial features or expressions
- live-stream the camera on to the internet
- detect if the user is on their phone alone, or watching together with a second person
- upload random frames of the video stream to your web service and run a proper face recognition software which can find existing photos of you on the internet and create a 3D model based on your face.
In 2016, documentary maker Anthony van der Meer installed a "Find my Phone" on a mobile phone and then allowed someone steal it. After the person stole it, the real owner spied on all aspect of every moment of the thief’s life through the phone’s microphone and camera.
The documentary follows every move of this person, from brushing of teeth, to going to work, to eating with their co-workers, to intimate times with a loved one. This is the ability of apps that have access to your camera and microphone.
Edward Snowden revealed an NSA program called Optic Nerves. The operation was a mass surveillance program by which they captured webcam photographs every 5 minutes from Yahoo users’ video chats and then saved them for future use. It is estimated that between 3% and 11% of the images captured included “undesirable nudity”.
Government security agencies like the NSA can also have access to your gadgets through built-in backdoors. This implies that these security agencies can read your messages, tune in to your phone calls, take snapshots of you, read your emails, steal your files, stream videos of you … whenever they please.
Hackers can access your device with extraordinary ease via apps, multimedia messages, PDF files, and even emojis.
An app called Metasploit on the ethical hacking platform Kali uses an Adobe Reader 9 (which over 60% of users still use) exploit to open a listener (rootkit) on the user’s PC. You alter the PDF with the program, send the user the malicious file, they open it, and hey presto – you've complete control over their device remotely.
Once a user launches this PDF file, the hacker can then carry out a range of actions from installing whatever app/software they like on the user’s device to stealing all documents from the device.
If this article accomplishes anything, I hope it teaches you digital mindfulness. It is the act of being careful on the internet and taking precautions to protect yourself from pain and potential ruin in the future, all due to the fact that you did not install an anti-virus or put a little bit of tape over your camera.
A good initial step to preventing these issues is to study what permissions an app asks for. Does an application like LinkedIn really require camera access? Does an app like Twitter actually require microphone access? Before downloading an app, check out the reviews and search for any negative report about it to prevent yourself from future harm.
Always ensure to cover your webcam with tape, and plug out your microphones when you are done using them. You never know who is watching, or what is happening in the background on your device. It is only paranoia until it is too late.