Oftentimes when I open up my laptop in a public setting, someone will ask, “Why do you have a piece of tape over your camera?” I never had have a firm answer, except that once I saw my green camera light go on when I hadn’t engaged it. It freaked me out, and I’d heard stories of weirdos hacking into laptops and spying on users through their own webcams, so I figured I’d just cover it up. It’s been like that for years, leading some to think I’m a bit paranoid. But now, I’m recommending that everyone do it.
You’d be in good company too. After Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a photo of himself last year, observers on Twitter noticed a piece of tape covering his webcam. The Hill newspaper reported in 2016 that then Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey said all government offices have camera covers on their screens. He went on to say that it’s common sense and basically everyone should be doing it.
Hackers are indeed able to gain access to your screen, webcam, microphone and more through something called a remote administration tool (RAT). Creepy! These do have legitimate uses, like when an IT professional gains access to your computer to fix it. But hackers (or ratters) also use this tool to steal information from your computer, play pranks on you, or use your webcam to grab videos and photos of whoever is in front of the computer.
How does a RAT get on your computer? Hackers can trick people into downloading the malware through apps, or sneaky emails or social media posts that may say something like, “I can’t believe this picture of you I saw online!” If you click, you download the RAT. Mashable reports people also accidentally click bad links or download the wrong file, which can also cause your computer to download the malware.
It turns out I was lucky to see my webcam’s light go on. Whether or not someone was hacking into my camera, it made me think of the possibility. Consider a 2013 Johns Hopkins study that discovered how to get malware onto someone’s laptop and use it to video from the webcam without turning on the LED indicator. That same year, The Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI requested to use this method to spy on someone suspected of bank fraud (a federal judge denied the request).
The FBI suggests a few things to do to avoid a RAT including carefully choosing what you click and download onto your computer, making sure you have security software on all your devices, and that operating systems are all up to date.
How to know if a RAT is already on your computer
There is a wide array of possibilities when it comes to indicators of this type of malware. Ken Colburn is founder/CEO of Data Doctors and wrote in the Arizona Republic to look for odd computer behavior such as: cursors moving around by themselves, webcam indicator lights turning on at random times, text-based chat windows that appear unexpectedly, and a noticeable slowing of computer functions.
What to do if you suspect a RAT
The New Media Institute explains that you should immediately disconnect from the internet and run an anti-virus scan. After that, check all installed software to look for anything out of the ordinary, and get rid of it.
And if you do suspect something and want to follow in my footsteps, go ahead and just grab a piece of duct tape and slap it on. While it may be inelegant, it does the trick. For more aesthetically pleasing options, Slate tested and reviewed other things to cover up the webcam, including washi tape, stickers, and post-it notes. And if you want to get really fancy, Amazon has all sorts of webcam covers for under $20, and many that even slide back and forth, allowing webcam use when you need it.
Unless you Skype a lot with your computer, I can’t imagine many times when you even need your laptop webcam. So head to your junk drawer and find something to cover it up already.