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The Secret Life of Webcams

By Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/US, CIPP/E

They’re easy to miss but almost ubiquitous. They’re convenient for video chatting and, most importantly, they’re great for selfies.

But webcams allow for some pretty nefarious things to happen, too.

Take, for example, the case of Jared James Abrahams. For more than two years, the now 19-year-old Abrams hacked into at least two dozen computers belonging to young women. BBC News reports:

“Court records state that the computer science student told the women—who ranged from the age of 16 to their early 20s—that he had taken pictures of them while they were undressed. He then threatened to post the images to social media sites unless they sent additional photos or stripped via a Skype video feed.”

Talk about creepy and disturbing. Unfortunately, at least two victims complied. Luckily, Abrahams was caught and his actions have been halted. (He now faces up to 11 years in prison and $1 million in fines.)

And, one of his victims, Cassidy Wolf—the current winner of the Miss Teen USA pageant—tweeted this:

But the invasiveness of webcams is not particular to this case. The FTC made waves in a recent settlement with TRENDnet. The security company allowed consumers to remotely monitor their homes via cameras connected to the Internet. However, the company allegedly used “lax security”—not including a password requirement for the cameras.

According to the FTC settlement,

In January 2012, a hacker exploited this flaw and made it pubic, and, eventually, hackers posted links to the live feeds of nearly 700 of the cameras. The feeds displayed babies asleep in their cribs, young children playing and adults going about their daily lives. 

It’s the first FTC action against a company in the realm of the Internet of Things. Perhaps it’s a shot across the bow of other companies in the ubiquitous sensors’ universe. The Internet of Things is certainly in the cross hairs of the agency. It will host a roundtable next week to gather more facts and learn more about the emerging industry.

Okay, so webcams are everywhere and they’re easy to hack. Will there need to be some sort of regulation on these? If so, in what form? The FTC went after TRENDnet’s data security practices, but just about every computer and smartphone has a webcam (in fact I’m looking into mine as I type this). Will more people start to see these as a hazard?

Trevor Hughes, our CEO, was kind enough recently to give me a stick-on webcam privacy protector, but that’s an add-on, and we’re a privacy association—we're always thinking about these things. Should computers and smartphones start coming with privacy-enhanced webcams?

Hopefully, lots of teens saw Cassidy Wolf’s tweet about covering your webcam, but perhaps more privacy-enhancing measures are needed for this convenient, but potentially invasive feature.

We’ve reported on other privacy-enhancing measures, such as anti-surveillance clothing and smartphone shields to prevent surveillance and tracking. Even the President of the United States uses a tent to block surveillance while travelling abroad. And applying the tenets of the Faraday cage, the Vatican surrounded the Sistine Chapel with one to prevent eavesdroppers from listening in to the papal enclave to determine the next Pope.

Individualized Faraday cages or other anti-surveillance measures may help, but ultimately, will regulation also be needed to truly block the view of prying eyes? Or can a good hashtag campaign solve the problem with education? This might be an area where tech providers want to get out ahead of both regulators and the public.

More from Jedidiah Bracy

About the Author

As editor of the Privacy Perspectives, Jedidiah Bracy moderates the many views, angles and, well, perspectives that inform information privacy and all its adjacent professions.

In addition to editing the Privacy Perspectives, Bracy facilitates the vetting, writing, editing and curation for the Daily Dashboard, the IAPP Canada Dashboard Digest, the IAPP Europe Data Protection Digest and the IAPP ANZ Dashboard Digest. He writes feature articles for The Privacy Advisor on information privacy law, data protection and the privacy profession.

When not mulling over the current state of information privacy in the digital age, Bracy enjoys watching international soccer, listening to his music library and tasting a finely wrought craft beer. You can follow him @jedbracy

See all posts by Jedidiah Bracy

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