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Ask HN: Do you cover the camera/mic on your computer/phone?
64 points by gnicholas on Aug 9, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 97 comments
I know a lot of people who cover the camera on their laptop, but I don't know anyone who takes steps to disable the microphone, or who disables the camera/mic on their phones.

I understand that cameras on computers could capture lots of sensitive/embarrassing/incriminating information, but it seems like microphones would actually be worse in many cases. Also, since we carry our phones with us more than we carry our computers, the sensors on these devices are probably potential targets as well.

Do people block these other sensors and I just don't know about it? Or is it just too difficult from a practical perspective to block these sensors?

Yes (front facing cam on phone as well, can't easily cover back one yet), Zuckerberg and FBI director Comey do as well. Seems common sense these days. Which is really, really sad.



A highlighted photo of Zuckerberg's setup:


From here:


To put things in perspective, though, Zuckerberg is CEO of an international company that's constantly under attack by state-sponsored actors. He also spends $10 million on physical security.

In contrast, a non-famous person probably doesn't have as much to worry about, hence why I personally don't cover my smartphone camera.

None of my computers or servers mean anything to anyone, they are essentially anonymous. But they are all attacked daily.

Do you think no one should cover their cameras because they "believe" they aren't under attack?

I second this.

On one of my sites that barely has 1000 visitors a week, I still have to deal with 1000¨'s of requests every day from "hackers" lol.

Pretending to be interesting enough to be spied on is one of the main reasons why people care about their cyber security.

Just to add to the discussion about how easy it can be to access someone's personal device:


This is just _one_ vulnerability from one company...

Is it paranoia for me to lock my front door, because no one has ever tried to open it without my permission?

Maybe? I usually don't lock the door when I'm at my original house. If I gained notoriety I'd probably be more inclined to lock it.

> Zuckerberg and FBI director Comey do as well. Seems common sense these days. Which is really, really sad.

Both of these people are public figures. You can argue that it's common sense if you're a public figure. If not, "common sense" seems like an exaggeration.

I have had threats and stalker like situations in my life, and concerns for my children. It's common sense for many people.

Edit: This isn't about the government per se, but anyone can get hacked for any reason. Working on security issues for almost 20 years has made me paranoid.

In the 90s when I first setup a firewall on a dialup modem, I found I was getting attacked at random every minute of every day. (this is nothing compared to the servers I deal with today) Only the ignorant masses think their current device isn't compromised.

I assume all my devices are compromised, or able to be.

This is really sad that the response is so often: you must be just paranoid, when stalking is so common and surveillance software is cheap and so easy to use. Actually stalking/surveying a potential target is a very prolific tactic used by most modern criminals, it's crazy and stupid not to care about it.

Not sad. There is no cybersecurity without physical security. I only hope that people remain this vigilant as cameras become even more ubiquitous and invisible.

Because he knows that his company hoovers any personal data and violates privacy from digital devices at whim.

Only public shock keeps facebook or instagram apps from trying to take surreptitious pictures or audio to gain extra insight into your private life. If there wouldn't be extreme public shock, they'd do it in a heartbeat.

As criminals often know good ways to defend from theft by understanding the nature of theft, privacy thieves knows' the nature of privacy and take steps to ensure the same cannot be done to them as easily.

Could someone really get more information by hi jacking your camera or your microphone? If I wanted to eavesdrop on a conversation, the Mic is much better.

On Mac, the little green light that comes on any time the camera is used is enforced at the hardware level. This gives me reasonable certainty it isn't being used illicitly.

I find the camera covers everyone uses to be a form of unreasonable extreme paranoia. Agree that the microphone would be just as damaging, but since it's a lot harder to block, people don't care.

Apparently photos can be taken with the Mac camera and trigger the green light so briefly that it is not noticeable [1]. It would be good if Apple set a minimum activation period for the green light, so that even if the camera is only on for a millisecond, the green light is on for 5 seconds or something. In the meantime, there are tools that can alert you to any activations [2].

1: https://www.intego.com/mac-security-blog/your-macs-camera-ca...

2: https://www.macworld.com/article/3129449/security/how-to-kee...

Even better than an activation period: use a condenser to power the led, then make the photo.

Hardware hackers here will gladly make a small circuit that prevents that brief flicker and cannot be circumvented because it is hardware.

I recall seeing a proof of concept that disabled the light by exploiting the camera controller's firmware. It seems that the light and the camera are not wired in series, but individually addressable by the controller.

This was only true on old Macs (those manufactured until roughly 2008). No recent models have been proven to be susceptible to this type of hacking.

When I got my hands on an old Retina MBP, the screen was broken. I was able to source a screen from a second machine that didn't boot, but that machine was older. Many of the components were ever so slightly different (thanks Apple). The display cable fitted okay, but the webcam cable didn't fit.

Just a few moments after I became annoyed at this, I realised - this is probably the best solution. I would have covered the camera up anyway. Okay, the adaptive brightness doesn't work either, but it's a minor inconvenience for quite a lot more security.

My other laptop (a Clevo custom) has a keyboard shortcut that disables the camera as a USB device, making it drop off the hardware list; I'm sure there's a way around that, but it provides another hurdle to anyone attempting to invade my privacy.

I don't think this is true. Can you back this claim? I think they are not hardwired together, but merely both activated at the same time via firmware. Until hardware manufacturers provide a simple hardware sensor cutoff, blocking them via whatever means seems normal to me. There is no reason to trust tech companies.

It's one of the jobs of the T1/T2 chips in newer Macs.

"as well as keeping tabs on the microphone and FaceTime HD camera to keep them safe from hacking"[1]


People cover their webcams because the news told them scary hackers would be watching them in their private time. While yes that can be true, the media blew up way out of proportion and it caught on. There are no downsides to covering your camera though, so it isn't a bad thing.

I cover mine not out of paranoia of being hacked, but to avoid embarrassment say if I auto-joined a meeting or did something which turned it on in a conversation.

This isn't to say you shouldn't cover it. There are absolutely people who distribute malware specifically for getting access to webcams and mics. That footage/recording can subsequently be used for blackmail. The media tries to make it seem like every other time you open your laptop, you'll contract some mega virus that will let people record your entire life.

There are absolutely people who distribute malware specifically for getting access to webcams and mics.

If they can hijack your camera and your mic, what good does just covering your camera do? It would be a lot more valuable to hear a conversation in a board conference room for instance than just to see the laptop user on video.

Pretty much this. Random user is not the target of state sponsored hacking. Targets of state sponsored hacking will succumb to their efgorts anyway. So, yes, cover the cam, if mostly to avoid inadvertent video when joining web meetings.

Hypothetical: as the cost of mass storage continues to plunge, why wouldn’t less-scrupulous states gather as much dirt as possible on anyone of even the remotest national interest (through intermediaries, of course), in case it ever becomes valuable?

The cost/benefit equation there seems pretty clear. As a competitor state, his much would YOU pay for the next U.S. President’s private Facebook message history? A million dollars? A hundred million? Trade deals in the billions could be at stake.

Hypothetical? This was exposed in 2013. It DOES happen. Indiscriminate dragnet surveillance is the norm. I prefer to assume everything I post online is already being collected, indexed and analysed.

No. It is an unreasonable paranoia, to steal kenneth’s words.

In addition to kenneth’s very practical perspective on the technical challenges, the other consideration is that you are simply not worth the trouble.

Grabbing audio, video or picture content worth blackmailing someone with is time-consuming, above and beyond the technical challenge. There is not an at-scale monetization path for an attacker to make it worth his time for the general user.

High-profile folks like Comey and Zuckerburg change that decision calculus - they are likely to be individually targeted for many reasons. You are not.

Grabbing your audiovisual content is not for blackmailing. It is to determine if you are watching a TV show without telling you that an app is doing that. It is for profiling everyone and violating your privacy at scale to making money off the results.

Friends were covering their camera after accidentaly triggering the broadcast feature in facebook.

Is it paranoia if based on experience ?

Brave words to say here on HN, but I completely agree. Seeing one of those webcam covers is a good indicator of who not to talk to if I want to avoid a lecture about why I may as well be handing my information to "the government" on a silver platter if I didn't write my own bootloader.

This is silly to discuss who is 'worth it' as a target. The nets are cast wide and good malware will simply seek the vulnerable. Think of the hard drive encrypting ransomware. If they add illicit webcam pictures into the "PAY ME NOW" screen that's a massive advantage. Attempting to block sensors is simply least-privilege security stance applied to physical devices.

If you work in IT, you well may be "worth the trouble", because you probably have more access than a "normal" user. First you try to compromise someone in the IT department, then someone in the C-Suite. Goes for social engineering as well.

What will they see from your camera except you looking at a computer?

I disagree, I personally have had dangerous people in my life, and the concerns for being targeted are real. Not for monetary reasons, but personal ones.

I block the camera on my Mac ever since I saw 60 minutes interview Mark Zuckerberg where he had his camera covered.

[source] https://www.hackread.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Mark-Zuc...

So you consider yourself a Zuckerberg level target?

One does not need to consider themselves at a specific level to apply something for security.

Zuckerberg is a robot, humans fear getting caught watching porn. (Gonna be unpopular, but meh it’s true)

I don't know what he is but he's not human anymore, since confirmed by himself https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qGVVxaosDM

I cover my camera with a black tape. I also disabled my camera from device manager in Windows.

I noticed that my ear piece can work as a microphone. So I unplug it from the laptop when its not needed.

A few acquaintances have complained that their camera flash on certain sites and apps. So it's not all conspiracy.

I currently cover the camera on my computer. I don't have a way to disable the microphone unfortunately. If I had the money to drop on a new laptop, I would buy a Purism Librem laptop with a hardware kill switch for the camera and microphone.

I am currently waiting until the Purism Librem 5 phone is released and then I will have hardware kill switches to turn off the camera and microphone. Until then I don't have many options.

No. What could be the worst? That someone sees me naked and put it online? There's so much content online that it's a drop in an ocean. Even if they were to send it to my boss... so what? Every human has a body, it's not any worst than going to the beach or changing in the locker room.

I found this ted talk on privacy enlightening: https://www.ted.com/talks/glenn_greenwald_why_privacy_matter...

If someone placed a surveillance camera in each of your apartment’s rooms, and you could remove these cameras or leave them in place, what would you do?

Do you think your behavior would be exactly the same, with the cameras and without them?

Do you drive exactly the same, with and without a police car tailing you?

I think there's a big difference between a camera put there specifically to surveil you, and a camera you purchased as part of your electronic device, which is, absent someone specifically targeting you, under your control and used for your convenience to video chat with your loved ones.

I think there's also a big difference between how one would act with the possibility of someone watching them (who, if they are watching, are doing so only by illegally accessing my personal device) and how one would act with the certain knowledge of being watched by legitimate authorities.

Nuance is a thing that exists.

That's a good attitude. Pretty much immune to that form of blackmail. But I sometimes mightn't want someone watching me from some angle or place, so even tho there's other placements where products can monitor, I'll cover it to exercise control over that one.

What about a bad guy that turns on your camera to watch your keyboard while you're on a shopping or financial site? It seems like a more valuable target to capture banking and email passwords than knowing the specific shape of your body - a shape that's probably not very different from most people in your demographic. Krebs has details about the value of a hacked email account: https://krebsonsecurity.com/2013/06/the-value-of-a-hacked-em...

How are they going to see my keyboard from where the camera is usually placed on a laptop?

The EFF has a good guide and sells stickers which do not leave residue and are thin enough to allow a laptop to close normally. They are also small enough to use on a phones front facing camera.



If you spend as little as 1 day on any grey/blackhat forums out there you will never think of it security the same again. People talk about hardware controlled leds and such, you can find Oss repos, even on pupolar platforms like gh that show you how to bypass this...

Opsec in depth routine for a new laptop:

- Start sound recording and physically identify the location of the mic.

- Jam a needle into the condenser mic to short circuit the membrane

- Confirm voice cannot be recorded anymore by making a test recording, and repeat previous step to satisfactory results.

- Locate all cameras and cover them with stylish stickers scavenged from other locations on the laptop. Use superglue if they are no longer sticky enough.

- Confirm image cannot be recorded anymore.

- Disable drivers the video device and/or force install incompatible drivers.

- Mute and/or minimize volume for the microphone device in the recording mixer.

> Opsec in depth routine for a new laptop...

I really like your style, and can't quite comprehend why your post merited down votes.

As for the rest of you,stating that covering/disabling mics and cams is silly: Just because you think yourself unimportant or uninteresting to others doesn't mean that you actually are. Furthermore, that you're insignificant today, doesn't mean that you will be tomorrow. It does, however, say much about your sense of agency and self. So, thanks for the insight I guess.

The downvotes on HN are really out of control, it's acceptable to "downvote if you disagree"; I guess I can accept that as a social convention - but not if the platform is configured to physically hide, flag and censor downvoted comments.

The two features make for a toxic combo: instead of simply enforcing "civil" conversation, downvotes are used as a political tool to strongly dissuade contrarian views, even when such views are expressed in high effort, well argued posts.

Some sacred cows of the community are criticizing US international position or criticizing YC companies. Other-times, the political slant depends on the type of crowd the headline will attract: in a topic against GDPR, self driving cars or global warming you are guaranteed to attract downvotes when supporting these issues, with the opposite true in the converse threads.

Agreed. I really have a problem w/ the censuring of someone for asking a question or for answering one w/factual information.

For a group of people on pride themselves on being logic-driven and smarter-than-the rest, the behaviors I see here show the crowd to be pretty well positioned w/i the 'bell' of the curve, if not to the left. Actually speaks volumes about why some of the products coming out of the field are what they are and/or end up w/the 'unintended' problems that are revealed.

For all of the probable smarts in this community, there is (in addition to a general sense of entitlement) a clear lack of breath and depth of knowledge of the rest of the world. And I find it unfortunate that rather than acknowledging that and moving to address those faults, people revert to the see no evil model, which, again, makes much of the HN crew very average, not exceptional.

Oh well...

> Jam a needle into the condenser mic to short circuit the membrane

Just open the damn thing and disconnect the wire, it's usually not soldered so you could easily connect it back if you decide to sell it.

That will cost you your warranty. A needle in a mic is undetectable, quick and guaranteed safe - there is absolutely nothing that can break or short-circuit in a condenser mic, it's a two wire device read through the voltage drop on a multi k-ohm pull up resistor.

Holy crap. Physically destroying the mic on a new laptop? That is hardcore man...

What is its use? Really, why would I ever need to have a crappy condenser mic on a development machine? Voip apps on the desktop belong to the 2000s, and if I ever actually need to use such things, I can plug a pair of mic/headphones.

Nothing wrong if this is how you roll. Killing the hardware is always a "last resort" thing for me. #savage hehehehe.

I block the camera on my work machine, so that if I accidentally have video turned on when joining a meeting I don't embarrass myself.

I also have a cover for my work camera, but it's just to ensure I have a hardware way of turning the camera "off", not because I think I'm going to be hacked.

Besides, I don't think I've ever done anything in front of my work camera that would be of interest to anyone.

I think these are the same thing though. You want to ensure that you have a hardware way of turning your camera off _because_ you know that ultimately you have no control of the software that runs on your laptop. If you had good software assurances you wouldn't need hardware switches. That's the same idea as 'being hacked' (malware, targeted or otherwise) or the threat thereof: that you wouldn't be in control.

To me, its just least-privilege applied. The camera needs to be used when _I_ want it. That's it. The OS doesn't get to decide, malware doesn't get to decide, they don't need access to activate it.

The difference to me is that I don't ever expect malicious intent to be the cause of the camera operating incorrectly. Yes I am not in control in both cases, but only in one case am I being targeted with intent to harm.

if you want a sticker to cover your laptop AND support the EFF, I suggest this (5$): https://supporters.eff.org/shop/laptop-camera-cover-set

I don't subscribe to all of their dogma, but I've benefited from what they've accomplished

I used to support the EFF. Defending pedophiles, as they did in the case of Francis Rawls, is not something I can support however.

2-3 weeks to ship stickers? =/

No, because the threat model doesn't make sense. To record audio or video, a hacker would need to be running arbitrary code as my user or as root on my laptop. If they've got that far, I'm completely pwned. Now, if a hacker has pwned my computer, are they going to risk alerting me by flashing my camera light or attempting to exfiltrate large amounts of likely useless multimedia data? Not likely. They're much more likely to do something boring and practical like make me join a botnet or scrape logins for any online accounts I might have. If it's a really serious (non-automated) hacker, they might go digging for industrial secrets, or quietly record my keystrokes.

In the extremely unlikely event that someone actually wants and retrieves footage or audio of me, the worst they're gonna find is me doing something mildly embarrassing, like doing the macerena with a kazoo accompaniment. Not exactly easy to monetize.

I disassembled my laptop and removed both camera and microphone before I began using it. I did the same with my tablet.

The gyroscopes in your phone can (at least in a lab) be used to listen to conversations. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10914666 Out in the wild, it is unlikely that anyone is listening to my conversations because I'm not that interesting to anyone...but like cookies tracking me across the internet, I'm not imagining that I can beat a well funded and mildly determined Eve...never mind a state level actor.

I wish there were hardware level switches for mics and cameras.

Or at least tie their power to an in line LED that shows when it is active.

An old piece of networking equipment I used to use had a physical switch that triggered a physical change in the hardware to switch between active network cards. You could open the box and watch it switch. Silly fun.

Granted they probably won't do it but I can dream.

Trade show swag now includes laptop camera blockers. It has a little slider that opens/close.

I got one a few weeks back and it seems to work well.

examples: https://www.google.com/search?rls=en&q=webcam+sercurity+cove...

Cameras incidentally capture many background details that a mic will not in sensitive areas. For example, an explicit threat scenario that motivates the government to tape all cameras is doing facial recognition, especially beyond the walls of a glass meeting room. The mic will capture what is said in the meeting room but the camera may capture the identities of not only the people in the meeting but also other people in the building not at the meeting. Or identify where the meeting is actually taking place.

Anytime you tell someone a secret, there is a risk of leakage and the mic falls into the same category of threat. A camera, on the other hand, can passively glean many unrelated secrets beyond those intended to be communicated. You can control what you say but not what will show up in the background of a camera unless you disable it.

I just got a new macbook pro 2015 retina edition. There weren't any videos online really indicating where the mic was, so I did a hot/cold test readout on where the microphones located.

Its built into the chip and unfortunately blocking it is just not ergonomically friendly. You would need to block the vent ports to the left and right of the keyboard

I use this item: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01C50ZCWI/ref=oh_aui_sear... . Its a plastic slide-cover, I would use it over the magnetic alternative, those sliders get lost. Its better than using electric tape since its easy to still enable the slider / camera

When I have that slider on my phone, it acquires a lot of lint and sometimes the slider goes into open position as I put my phone in pocket throughout day.

On the note of incriminating information, police law enforcement are allowed to use your thumb and face to unlock your phone IIRC.

I don't cover the back of my phone, I usually need access to it right away and can't be bothered to add a slider on it. But I do know exactly what my viewing angles are on the back camera (I did some geometry calculations on a wall, its 20* left/right from focal point and 30* top to bottom IIRC). Its helpful to know because I can use my phones camera as a protractor if I wanted too to measure the height of some tall fixture.

I do remember reading about hardware exploits built into manufactured chips that does give government access to your cameras if they really wanted to, but would probably never do. This was part of the Edward Snowden PRISM leak IIRC. This might be all pure speculation and rumors though, but it doesn't hurt having a cover on front-facing camera.

I'd rather be safe than sorry is how I think of it. People have had their lives ruined from private videos going viral

I bring my own laptop to work, which runs a linux distro I installed myself (Ubuntu). I also have to use my camera and mic quite a bit, so, they remain free of obstructions most of the time.

If I was using my work supplied laptop I would likely take efforts to blind the machine outside of work hours.

I am a lot more worried about my phone. The android update process is slow and opaque and I have no idea what the manufacturer might be slipping into updates. Again, I use it a lot, so it generally remains un-obstructed.

I value privacy, but, apparently I value convenience of being able to actually use my devices a little more.

If you are in a sensitive environment, you put your electronics in a faraday bag and leave it outside the room.

I cover the camera to avoid accidentally turning the camera on for meetings on my laptop, not for security, to be honest.

If you aren't bringing this stuff into the bedroom with you, I'm not sure why people are as concerned as they are. We have to move on from judging people based on how exposed people get by hacking attempts. Well all do stupid shit we regret and if it isn't criminal, no one should be judged.

There are personal security issues to consider, think stalkers. Being able to hack someone's personal devices emboldens this behavior. (concerns from personal experience)

Fair enough. No one has found stalking me an effective strategy so I didn't think of that.

I used to but now I don't care anymore. I'm on Linux so it's less likely I'll be hacked in that manner. If I am hacked, I would try to make a sob story out of it.

Wish Apple would give us a physical cover.

Work MacBook has monitoring software on it that seems to have a number of different capabilities, the usual driver disablement commands also don't work (even sudo'd), and the input slider on the microphone always manages to creep back up a notch without my doing. (None of these things are a problem on the home system.)

Yep - electrical tape prevents the latest version of webex putting my +10 casual image into a formal business meeting when it automatically starts the video feed. The fact that I never seen any other crusty visages on the webex face list tells me I'm not alone in my 'paranoia'.

Yes, but only for my coworker's sake rather than my own. It took me a while to find the "disable video on meeting join" setting in Zoom so more than once I was shirtless and unshaven for the first few seconds of standup.

Covering the camera makes you 100% under control. I don’t trust any software or hardware or even promises from vendors. As far as the mic goes, nothing much you can do to take control unless you physically unmount it, which your average Joe can’t do...

I use mine sometimes up to 10 times a day for various chats and screenshares with colleagues (distributed team) - It would be a massive pain in the ass to do this. If someone wants to watch me frown repeatedly then they are welcome to it!

In a previous company, a large bank, the camera and microphone in laptops were physically removed in default install.

It was possible to apply for a USB camera/mic if needed.

Yes, because $dayjob uses zoom.us which has frustrating defaults.

Zoom > Preferences > Video, check "Turn off my video when joining meeting"

I don't have a camera on my computer, but my headset has a microphone with a hardware switch to turn it on or off -- I leave it off unless I'm using it.

I don't bother with my laptop camera. The odds of it being hacked and turned on without me knowing is fairly low and even if it did i'm sure whoever did would regret turning it on and seeing me.

For my phone I disable mic and camera permissions for all my apps until they need it. Other than my phone dialer I suppose. If i'm in public or on the bus or something i'll try not to sit with my phone so the camera is facing people. I've seen more than one person get pissed about it.

No. If they're wasting their time watching me.. I feel sorry for them and the minutes of life they can't get back..

I block the camera on my work laptop because the conferencing software we've been using likes to default to video.

I tend to whisper when I'm having private conversations around my device. I sometimes cover them. Mostly because Google has been activating a lot more lately than ever before. I would hate for a snippet of a private conversation to be taken out of context. I'm pretty confident there is a recording with my latest argument with my girl friend on apple or googles servers.

On my laptop yes. Not sure why i bother because i dont cover anything on my phone.

Yep. black duct tape - double layer over the mic.

I use an app called Camera Guard on my Mac.

That's almost certainly worse than not using it. A third-party app controlling the camera is an attack vector, or could interfere with Apple's native hardware security, and provides false peace-of-mind.

What is interesting is that this app allows me to see exactly what processes are attempting to access the camera and mic. I agree it can be a vector but the benefit of getting alerted every time something tries to access mic and camera hardware to me is worth the risk. BTW I will be adding one of the sticker ports to the camera ASAP.

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