Be careful what you do in front of your computer; someone may be watching

If you’ve got an an older Apple computer, you may want to cover up the webcam lest you get creeped out by the latest news.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found a security vulnerability in Macs released before 2008 that would allow a hacker to surreptitiously take pictures or videos of users via those devices’ built in webcams.

The webcams on iMacs and MacBook laptops from that era — like those of today — have an LED light that’s supposed to illuminate when their cameras are in use. But the security flaw allows hackers to activate the camera without turning on the light.

Lest you think this is just a theoretical problem, it isn’t. In October, Jared Abrahams, a 19-year-old Southern California resident, pleaded guilty to an extortion scheme in which he secretly took pictures — many of them nudes — of at least 12 different women. Abrahams took the pictures with the women’s own webcams. According to one of the victims, Cassidy Wolf, a former Miss Teen USA winner, the pictures were taken without the warning light ever being activated.

What’s more, a former assistant director in the FBI told the Washington Post earlier this month that the agency has “for several years” had the ability to secretly activate webcams on targeted computers without triggering a warning light.

Although the security vulnerability discovered by the Johns Hopkins researchers is particular to older Macs, they say that the same techniques could be used to compromise cameras on newer computers — Mac or PC. The researchers said that while they notified Apple of the vulnerabilty, the company hasn’t said how it might address it.


Photo courtesy of Apple.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (291 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for and CNET