Should you cover your webcam?

When media reported that people like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and FBI Director James Comey cover their webcams, it got us to wondering if we should all do the same. Putting a sticky note or a band-aid over the camera feels like you’re taking control and shielding yourself from a spying hacker. And true, while the cover is on, your view would be blocked, but is it effective security protection?

Marshall Erwin, Mozilla’s Head of Trust and Privacy, says not so much.

“Covering your webcam could actually make things worse,” Erwin said. “Hackers could still listen using the microphone, for example. If you’ve covered the camera and don’t see the indicator light next to the lens, you won’t know that the hacker has activated the camera and is listening in.”

Erwin also points to other ways a webcam can be compromised, such as “piggybacking” on video calls. Covering your camera is not a perfect defense.

Before you unplug your webcam for good, there’s a better answer than a band-aid or the bin. You can be smart and protect yourself from security intrusions before they happen. Here’s how:

  • Set strong passwords. From your home’s wifi router to your social media accounts, strong password practices are your single best protection against almost every kind of threat on the Web. Basic security practices like this will make it harder to compromise the devices you use, which will protect your webcam, too.
  • Be skeptical about links. Malicious hackers use all kinds of tricks to access our computers, one of which is to send links that look safe. These links actually contain malware or viruses that are used to corrupt your computer. If a link or download doesn’t feel quite right, it probably isn’t. Make sure you install programs only from verified trusted sources, and don’t click on anything that looks even remotely suspicious – even when you think you know the source.
  • Install a security system. Anti-virus software won’t protect against every threat, but it’s a good start. If you do install protective software, keep it up to date and conduct regular security scans. Third party companies make their bread and butter by keeping up on threats so you don’t have to.
  • Call an expert. If you think your webcam has been compromised, check with a trusted, experienced IT professional on how to proceed. Be aware that you might be in for some tough love to set your device to rights.

At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be afraid to have or use webcams. They are just one piece of a huge “web” of technologies that make the Internet dynamic and enjoyable. Don’t ignore the possibility of webcam compromise, but take it with a grain of salt. Put a webcam cover (or cute cat sticker) on if you like, just don’t count on it as a great solution. Most of all, be a smart digital citizen about all of your online security, on camera and off.

» Get more cybersecurity tips from Mozilla.