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Hackers Can Watch You Through Your Webcam -- Even on Newer Computers


Security researchers say that even newer Macs could turn into surveillance devices for the government or hackers.

New computer security research has found that even newer PCs with built-in webcams are prone to an attack that allows hackers to remotely watch and surveil their victims.

Hackers have been able to turn remote computers into "slaves" for years. As far back as 1998, security researchers have exploited the loopholes in webcam security to demonstrate how easy it is to turn webcams into surveillance devices. Even worse, a webcam hack could leave a victim vulnerable to blackmail or theft of online banking passwords. Manufacturers such as Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), which pioneered the built-in laptop camera, have taken measures to ensure that in case a computer is compromised, the user will at least be alerted by the camera's warning light. But according to the Washington Post, it is still possible for either the FBI or a kid with no programming chops at all to spy on someone without triggering a warning light.

In a recent paper titled "iSeeYou: Disabling the MacBook Webcam Indicator LED," Matthew Brocker and Stephen Checkoway of Johns Hopkins University confirmed that hackers could get around the warning light on an Apple laptop. They were able to do this even without gaining root access to the computer.

The paper's authors focused on older Macs, but the Post quoted Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) security specialist Charlie Miller saying that even newer laptops could also be hacked in such a way.

"There's no reason you can't do it -- it's just a lot of work and resources but it depends on how well [Apple] secured the hardware," he says.

Attackers usually use a Remote Administration Tool (RAT) to gain access to another person's computer. To be sure, there are legitimate uses for this tool, usually in corporate IT settings or with applications such as LogMeIn. There are also high-end software products that are reportedly used by governments to monitor dissidents or track criminals through their webcams. The FBI says that it has been able to surreptitiously turn them on for years.

Shady versions of these tools can also be used by so-called hackers with no real skills. All it takes is software downloaded from the Web.

In March 2013, Nate Anderson of Ars Technica published a deep exposé of the open message boards where hackers exchange tips for installing RATs on targets and share pictures of their "slaves" for all to see. Sometimes they even make embarrassing videos and post them to YouTube (NASDAQ:GOOG).

"[L]ol I have some good news for u guys we will all die sometime, really glad to know that there are other people like me who do this sh*t," wrote one poster on HackForums. "Always thought it was some kind of weird sick fetish because i enjoy messing with my girl slaves."

The same tools that allow hackers to turn on cameras also allow them to log keystrokes to steal passwords, hide the desktop, install or disable software, or use the computer in a "botnet" (along with thousands of others) to take down a website in a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.They can even use text-to-speech features to make the computer say a frightening message out loud.

Just this fall, Cassidy Wolf, Miss Teen USA, fell victim to one of these individuals. One of her high-school classmates monitored her for months, taking nude pictures of the teenager. She received those same pictures of herself by email, and the police eventually caught her tormentor.

The latest news should be concerning for all consumers with modern laptops, and is particularly scary considering the increasing ubiquity of cameras in all sorts of devices. The newest Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Xbox One requires the Kinect motion-detecting camera to be on at all times, even when a user isn't playing games. Though sales of the Xbox are still very high, some say that the always-on camera drove some gamers to the Sony (NYSE:SNE) Playstation.

If you are concerned about your webcam security, you don't need to buy expensive antivirus software. Just put a piece of removable tape over your webcam until you need to use it.

Also see:

I Am 100% Certain That Google Chromebooks Did Not Take 21% of the Notebook Market

Google's Chromecast: My Favorite Gadget of 2013

BlackBerry Users Can't Stop, Won't Stop

Twitter: @vincent_trivett
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