This week, Oliver Stone releases the biopic Snowden, which critics say is his most important movie in two decades. Regardless if reviews are negative or positive, any conversations about the film are bound to include concerns about personal privacy, surveillance, spying and cybercrime.
Many of us first became familiar with Edward Snowden’s story through Laura Poitras’ Academy Award-winning documentary Citizenfour (2015), which not only exposes the events that led to NSA whistleblower Snowden fleeing America and being placed on the FBI’s most wanted list, but also reveals the extent to which ordinary citizens are increasingly being spied on by governments, law enforcement agencies, private corporations, and yes, by cybercreeps, all of whom gain access to our computers, laptops, and personal devices by finding their vulnerabilities, and hacking into them.
Our tech devices make us vulnerable to any number of exposures. Every time we turn one on, we risk losing more of our privacy. None of this is new, of course. What is new is the sheer volume of internet users, unprecedented in history.
The public has been warned about webcam surveillance since the early 2000s. Even earlier, back in the 1990s, internet users were aware of software that gave access to personal computers via webcams. Today the risk is greatly magnified by the huge increase in the number of people, governments, and corporations connected around the world. More of us are using connected devices to control our vehicles, household security, and even our appliances, and for work and play, making us more exposed than we have ever been. Ironically though, fewer people are taking practical steps to protect themselves online.
And while the majority of us may think that’s okay because we have nothing to hide from government agencies, the fact is that spy tools – software commonly referred to as creepware – are most often used for nefarious purposes by cybercriminals, extortionists, and other cybercreeps. Whether they want to watch us for their own amusement, or check out the contents of our homes to rob us, or share videos of us engaged in private activities, or take our computers hostage to blackmail us, or gain access to our data to sell it, cybercreeps are just plain creepy.
In a pivotal scene in Stone’s movie, Snowden’s character glances nervously at his exposed laptop webcam. In Citizenfour, he goes further, turning off and unplugging his laptop, using a pen and paper as his tool for communication. There’s photographic evidence that Mark Zuckerberg uses both mic jack and webcam covers. FBI Director James Comey has stated publicly that there’s tape over his webcam. Snowden himself has recommended webcam covers for years. It’s doubtful that anyone is more familiar with the implications of illicit surveillance than these three men.
It’s painfully true that, with easy to buy, easy to use, inexpensive software – known as Remote Access Tools (RATs) – anyone can gain access to your laptop, computer, phone, notebook, or any other connected device. Once they’ve infected your system with RATware, hackers can use its camera, audio jack, and the dongle for any wireless device, like your remote control, keyboard or mouse, to spy on you.
What many of us might not know is that hackers can activate our webcams without the indicator light turning on, which means there’s literally no visible sign that we’re being watched. They can spy on us even after we’ve turned off our laptop or device. The only way to be completely sure we will be unobserved is by unplugging our devices, removing their batteries, and turning off and unplugging our home wifi modems.
An external webcam can be covered or unplugged when not in use. For built-in webcams though, using a webcam cover like CAMBAID is the only 100% guaranteed way to effectively block someone from spying on us without our knowledge or consent. CAMBAID is paper-thin so you can attach it and still easily close your laptop, it leaves no sticky residue behind on your device, and it has a slider that can easily be opened when you want to use your webcam, and shut when you don’t.
Technology is a quickly and ever-changing industry. The surest way to protect yourself online is to always keep yourself informed and current, use those security measures that are available to you, and never assume that you’ve arrived at the only privacy solution you’ll ever need.