Should we all follow Zuckerberg’s example and tape over our webcams?

22 Jun 2016

Zuckerberg's laptop in the background with tape over the webcam; should the rest of us take the same precautions?

Today (22 June), Mark Zuckerberg wanted to celebrate Instagram hitting 500m users – instead an image showing that his MacBook’s webcam taped over sparked a furious debate about privacy. Should we all follow his example? Is there something he knows and we don’t?

In the photo, Mark Zuckerberg is posing with an Instagram prop to mark its 500m-user milestone. However, eagle-eyed internet users noticed that his MacBook had both the webcam and microphone covered by tape.

Zuckerberg, as one of the world’s wealthiest men, CEO of a publicly-listed company and founder of the world’s biggest social network of 1.6bn people, has plenty of prudent reasons to protect his privacy.

But should the rest of us do the same? Especially, given some of the revelations in The Guardian two years ago that UK spy agency GCHQ intercepted webcam images from millions of Yahoo users around the world in an operation called Optic Nerve.

Aided by the NSA, GCHQ is alleged to have stored 1.8m images that were gathered between 2008 and 2009, including imagery of nudity and some of an unintentionally pornographic nature.

But this could be just the tip of the iceberg.

No device is safe

No doubt, Facebook has top-notch security and, while Zuckerberg’s precautions may prevent anyone viewing through the webcam, it is debatable how effective the tape over the microphone could be.

The reality is that hackers are spreading malware that, once activated by unsuspecting users, can give them remote access to users’ hardware, including the microphone and webcam. If you are reading this on your computer, ask yourself if it could be possible that a hacker has access to your webcam right now.

Hackers have been using malware to take over computers in order to capture footage of people in compromising circumstances or who downloaded malware through pornographic websites and then extort sums of money from them in a grotesque form of “doxing”.

Doxing is the practice of gathering information about people using the internet as a source and then broadcasting it widely, but now webcams and microphones on computers are providing hackers with a richer bounty than ever before.

And then there is the question of whether malware or compromised apps on smartphones are also turning these personal devices into always-on webcams and microphones that hackers can use to gather private information.

Zuckerberg was celebrating Instagram, an app company he bought four years ago for $1bn, reaching 500m users and giving the world 500m windows to the world.

But in an unintentional way he has helped the world realise that maybe there are more windows left open than we know and an insight into Zuckerberg’s precautions could be a valuable lesson for us all to learn.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years