Have you ever wondered if someone might be illicitly staring back at you through your webcam; watching your every move; all without your knowledge? Cynics have known this for ages, but people who generally trust humanity might be surprised. Yes, there are voyeurs in the world with the turpitude to use your webcam as a gateway into your private life.
Think about it for a moment.
How would you really know if someone was watching you?
Almost every modern laptop has an integrated webcam. Some all-in-one desktop PCs even have them. My question is this: what is there to stop some truculent hacker from hijacking your webcam and discreetly spying on you?
The saying “I know what you did last summer” isn’t just the titular name of a bad Jennifer Love Hewitt movie. In fact, last summer, I broke the news about the Blackshades vulnerability and how it opened passage for hackers to take over webcams.
You might say,
Well, Vonnie I know when my webcam is on because the little green light glows green
But to that I would say:
If only it were that simple.
People spying on you through your webcam isn’t just the stuff of science fiction or silly movies. It really happens.
In fact, the FBI has been doing it for years.
According to Marcus Thomas, former assistant director of the FBI’s Operational Technology Division in Quantico, the FBI has been able to covertly activate webcams without trigging the light for several years.
Of course, this technique was chiefly used to capture high-profile criminals, usually involved in acts of terrorism; however, it’s still scary to know that the FBI had the ability to commandeer your webcam.
So here’s the thing: Apple deliberately designed the micro-controller that runs the integrated iSight webcams to use a “hardware lock”. The lock forces the indicator light to glow whenever the camera is in use. The idea was to make it virtually impossible to turn the camera on without turning on the light.
But the problem is that your Macbook is more than a webcam microprocessor tucked inside a laptop lid. There is a veritable maze of circuits and chips that comprises your computer and each component can become a potential attack vector for criminals activity.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have actually figured out how to reprogram the firmware that runs the iSight webcams so they can disable the light while using the camera. In December of 2013, Matthew Brocker and Stephen Checkoway published a 15 page whitepaper titled: iSeeYou: Disabling the MacBook Webcam Indicator LED. The paper delineates how Brocker and Checkoway’s re-engineered the firmware that drives the iSight camera and brings to light (pun intended) how an attacker might do the same thing.
It’s still unclear whether Apple’s newest line of FaceTime HD cameras are susceptible to this vulnerability; however, my point is that you shouldn’t assume that your camera is off just because it looks off.
That’s why I want to show you two very inexpensive and quick methods to protect your privacy. We’re going to disable the iSight webcam on your Mac.
Blocking the iSight webcam with tape
The easiest thing to do is to take a strip of scotch tap and tape it over the camera lens. This will occlude the possibility of someone getting a clear view of you. This is a really fast and cheap way to obscure the webcam; however, it’s not very pretty and could leave behind a sticky residue. I doubt you want to do that.
A Post-it note folded on itself is a smart technique. You’ll get privacy with reminders all thrown in one shot. You can cut a small square out of the sticky section of the Post-it note, slap it over the camera and be done with it.
The next best option is to find white electrical tape or a white shipping label with adhesive backing.
A hole puncher can pop-out a webcam blocker of the perfect size. Just slide the tape into the hole puncher, punch out the hole and neatly stick it over your circular webcam lens. You can even buy special black or white webcam covers for a few bucks or get fancy with something like a magnetic webcam shield.
Either option gets the job done.
If the idea of sticking something on your webcam or covering it up isn’t very appealing, we can manually remove the software component that drives the iSight camera.
Disabling iSight in Software
Check it out.
Press the Command + Shift + c to open the Computer in the Finder app.
Click through the Macintosh HD folder.
Go to System, Library and then Quicktime.
Inside the Quicktime folder is a file named:
Select it and press Command + c to copy the file.
Next, press Command + Shift + n to create a new folder.
Name it “iSight Webcam Backup” and then press Command + v to drop a copy of the component in your new folder.
Then you can delete the original QuickTimeUSBVDCDigitizer.component and your webcam should be disabled.
If that doesn’t work, you can go into Parental Controls (Command + Shift “parental controls”) and click Disable built-in camera under the Other tab.
You can also pull off the same effect using the iSight Disabler script by Techslave. It makes your Mac blind for as long as you need.
Extract the .scpt file then press Command + Shift + c to open your Computer folder. We need to drop the .script file in Macintosh HD, Library, Scripts.
Create a new folder (Command + Shift + n) called “iSight Disabler” and drop the .scpt file in there.
When you double click it the Apple Script Editor will show up revealing the guts of the script.
Don’t panic. We don’t need to know how it works but you can peruse the code if you want. Click the Play button or press Command + r to run the script. You’ll get a notice about Disabling iSight.
and now the next time you pop open an application that relies on your webcam such as Skype or FaceTime HD, you’ll see a friendly error warning you that no such camera exists!
One thing I should point out is that this isn’t a fool proof method of protection because if an attacker manages to get on the inside of your computer he may also figure out a way to remove the iSight Disabler. But one thing is for sure: it will almost certainly make it harder for the bad guys to do their dirty deeds.
On a side note, I tested this in Mac OS X Yosemite and it works just fine.
One more side note: although this disables the webcam it doesn’t disable the Mic, so keep that in mind.
To disable the Mic, you can press Command + Space, type “sound” and drag the input volume slider all the way down to the left.
The Bottom Line
I don’t know why Apple doesn’t include a toggle switch to let users disable the camera. A physical button on the Macbook would be perfect; or even just an unobtrusive shutter that you could flip over the lens would probably suffice. But no… no no… instead, we have to wrangle custom scripts and do all kinds of funky hacks just to turn off the webcam!
How do you feel about this? Does it bother you that your webcam is always there with no off switch? Let me know in the comments. I’m curious.