Tech, Now + Beyond

The FBI wants you to cover up your webcam. Here’s why.

This is not a drill.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, FBI Director James Comey revealed that he keeps his webcam covered and advises everyone to do the same. Calling it a “sensible” thing to do and likening it to locking your car and turning on your home alarm system, Comey warned that while it may seem paranoid and silly, a hacker looking through your webcam would have access to extremely sensitive information.

Mark Zuckerberg himself is known to have his webcam covered with tape and the web security company Hide My Ass! is developing products to attach to your laptop to cover the camera, and recommends covering them with tape in the meantime. Many people don’t bother to cover the camera out of convenience, and many others see it as an over the top move, but, as Comey also pointed out, every government employee has a webcam cover for their computer.

Comey got ribbed for his comments partially because it might seem like overkill for the director of the FBI to be worried about low-level hackers, and partially because his concerns about personal security may come across as hypocritical given his recent battle with Apple over encryption. But, as Comey rightly points out, even limited access to your webcam could provide someone with extremely sensitive and harmful information. How many of us keep their laptops open while they’re undressing or sleeping, to say nothing of Internet porn users. Webcam information could be used to watch your routine and case your house to make it easier for someone to rob you. Even if nothing criminal came of it, who wouldn’t feel uncomfortable with the idea of random people plugging into their cameras at any time?

There are lots of ways to protect yourself from webcam hacks, and putting a little electrical tape (or, if you’re me, decorative tape with little owls on it) over the camera is only one of them. By now most people know the importance of checking for viruses and not clicking on suspicious websites or downloading anything you don’t trust.

Besides, how often do you really think someone tries to break into your home that locking it every time you leave (and even when you’re home) is really necessary? Like most people who live in apartments, I need a key to even get in my building, and after that there are two locks on my door and a chain on the inside that I set at night. Is there someone trying to break in every night? No, but I do it for the one time someone does try. Shouldn’t we have the same attitude towards our technology?

Beyond the realistic and practical aspects of webcam security, let’s take a brief journey down conspiracy theory lane. It wouldn’t be a controversial thing to say that the director of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation knows a fair amount about the criminal activity going on in this country, would it?

Can we agree that James Comey probably knows what he’s talking about when he’s talking about security? So naturally that covers the practically of covering your webcam. Even if it’s unlikely to happen, the information and images a hacker could get their hands on is worth the trouble. If Comey says it’s easy for hackers to get in and using a bit of tape is a simple solution, we can trust him on that.

But to take a slightly ridiculous jump to a mildly outlandish conclusion, does Comey know something he isn’t telling us? We can only guess at the extent of information the top guns at the FBI, CIA and NSA have that they won’t release to the public. Would it be crazy to think that the webcam hacking business is bigger than we’ve been led to believe? What percentage of people are unaware that there are private images of themselves, taken from a compromised webcam, that are floating around out there? Why is it worth it to cover every single government webcam when one should think that the government has some high profile firewalls in place anyway?

Okay, we’ve had our fun, time to climb out of the rabbit hole. There is no reason to panic. A camera cover is just a very savvy and simple backup that can’t be removed by a clever hacker. Comey’s comparison to locking your house and your car is an apt one. But at the end of the day a healthy touch of suspicion is your friend.

No matter what Comey isn’t telling us, he is telling us this. Take five seconds, cover your camera, and ignore anyone who teases you for it. You never know who’s watching.