You’ve joked about it before. How some lonely CIA agent is secretly watching (and perhaps salivating at) your every move via your webcam. So, after you get out of the shower you open your laptop, strike a pose, and chuckle to yourself because you know the very idea is both hilarious and preposterous…until you realize it isn’t.

Webcam spying is very real.

Sure, you’ve seen articles and news segments about people who’ve fallen victim to spying via their webcams. But that’s because they’re either incredibly careless or doing some illegal stuff they know they shouldn’t. Right? Not exactly.

It’s well within the realm of possibility that you’ll wake up tomorrow morning to see pictures and/or videos of yourself in some sort of “compromising position” online. Yes, I said pictures of you. Plain old, beer-drinking, hangover-having you. But of course, you probably won’t see those pics until they’ve been liked, retweeted, and shared with a million other people first.

So in case you missed it my friend, welcome to the 21st century.

Devices That May Be Hacked

In most cases, spying is done through the cameras of desktop or laptop computers. So if you’re thinking of taking that extra five bucks out of your dad’s wallet, don’t assume you’re all alone. A hacked camera can cause severe emotional or psychological damage. One 20-year-old Glasgow student was left traumatized after she found out webcam hackers watched her while she was in the bath.

Although computer webcams are the devices that are most commonly hacked, you can also be tracked and watched via your smartphone camera. Even surveillance systems may be hacked and used to track people in real time. This means unscrupulous individuals may be able to watch you at home or at work from multiple angles, all day, every day.

Even more frightening is the idea that your children may be targeted. Imagine the horror of a mother in Houston who found out that footage of her daughters’ bedroom was being live-streamed. And if you thought things couldn’t get any weirder than that, consider the fact that even baby monitors are being used for spying and the data of more than 2.5 million kids was stolen using their favorite smart toy.

How It’s Done

The most common way hackers access your cameras is by using malware. Seemingly innocent links or attachments embedded in emails and online ads may be riddled with Trojan horses. Be sure to avoid the sweet Russian girls; a simple click or download could leave your device infected—effectively handing over control on a silver platter. Oftentimes, the malicious code is packaged with legitimate programs or software so you don’t even notice it. Hackers with remote access can turn your cameras on and off with no indication from the camera light.

Another way people may gain unpermitted access is by borrowing your device and manually downloading applications that allow them to access your files, camera, and microphone. These applications can be hidden so you don’t even know they are at work.

And if you thought that was all, my friend, you’d be wrong. Ever thought about app permissions? I’m sure you’re familiar with apps asking for permission to use your camera. What you may not be familiar with is the fact that these apps can capture you on camera at any time when they’re in the foreground (yes, that means even when you’re not using the camera). What’s worse is that no one knows what these apps may be able to access when they’re in the background and out of sight.

Unmasking The Creeps Who Spy On You

The main perpetrators in the spying pandemic are hackers. They use Trojans to claim control of your cameras and watch your every move. They may put your photos and videos on the internet for others to view online. In more disturbing cases, nude and intimate moments may be live-streamed on voyeuristic websites.

As I mentioned before, apps can also gain unpermitted access to both your front and rear cameras. Who knows what WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat and the like are capturing when your cameras are off and what they’re doing with it? Are they selling footage of you? Maybe. To whom or for what purpose I don’t know, but Snapchat may need the money.

Now, we’ll discuss the attackers you already know about: the government. Did you know that built-in backdoors in your smartphone may allow the government to access your files, read your messages, listen to or record your calls, capture images, and stream video? Just in case you ever thought the government was on your side!

In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that GCHQ—a British surveillance agency—collected and stored images from the video chats of millions of Yahoo users under the Optic Nerve program. Yes, tons of raunchy pics were collected and stored as well for…uh…security reasons.

But the blatant disregard for your online privacy doesn’t stop there. In fact, your school and the people you know best may be the biggest culprits.

Between 2009 and 2010, a number of Pennsylvania schools were caught remotely accessing the cameras of laptops issued to their students. And as for your “friends,” they can simply install spy software on your device without you having the slightest clue. Just ask pageant girl Cassidy Wolf. She learned the hard way when she was blackmailed with nude photographs her former classmate had taken via her webcam.

Why Cyber Spying Is Wrong

This one is obvious. We all have the right to data privacy. What’s that, you ask? It’s the ability for an individual (or organization) to determine if and how personal data will be shared with third parties. This includes access to the cameras on your laptop, smartphone, and surveillance system. Your data, your choice.

But is it even your data?

That’s a pretty important question. The terms and conditions you’re so quick to agree to (but never really read) may disagree. Are you unknowingly giving apps permission to access your cameras even when you aren’t using them? Maybe. Is this approach grossly unethical and utterly misleading? Yes. Is it illegal? Perhaps not.

What You Can Do About It

If you’re fine with people spying on you, you might as well stop reading right now. If you’d like a few tips on how to deal with the issue, consider those listed here:

  1. Cover your webcam with tape. If you have an external webcam, be sure to unplug it when you’re not using it.
  2. Install anti-virus software on your PC and your smartphone. It will readily spot and block malware. Be sure to keep your firewall enabled as well.
  3. Use protection. No, not that type of protection. Place a secure lock on your phone. Use a fingerprint lock or password to keep nosy “friends” away.
  4. Use your devices on secure networks. Stay away from public networks.
  5. Think carefully before giving an app permission to access your camera.
  6. Update the password for your surveillance system regularly.
  7. Be cautious about the emails that you open and the links or attachments inside them.
  8. Be wary of online advertisements and dodgy chat rooms.

And because I love you, here are some other ways you can be safe online.

The Bottom Line

People are definitely being spied on with their own cameras. You may be one of them. The government, hackers, schools, apps, and people you know may not be as innocent as they seem. While organizations like ours try to bring light to this gross disregard for your right to data privacy, remember to do what you can to keep yourself protected. And for Pete’s sake, never, EVER, trust that shady middle-aged guy who always sits behind you in the coffee shop!