The word “hacking” can have a number of meanings depending on who you ask and how deeply entrenched in the culture they are. For most of us, it’s a generic catch-all term we use to describe the nefarious use of a computer to gain access to someone else’s data – whether it’s for financial, personal, or political gain. That fuzzy understanding leaves a lot of folks concerned about “hacking” in a general, almost philosophical sense. We don’t want Russian hackers to affect the outcome of our elections, and we don’t think perverts should be allowed to sell nude photos of celebrities they steal from the cloud, but politicians and celebrities are high-profile targets and we aren’t. “Hacking” – whatever that means – is a problem for other people, not us.
The thing is, most of the methods employed by these “hackers” aren’t the keyboard magic we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on TV. Often, it’s a numbers game. Criminals aren’t usually digital “snipers” – choosing a target and going after them; they’re more like machine gunners, spraying rounds downrange and tagging anyone foolish or unlucky enough to peek their heads up from behind cover. Instead of bullets, they use Trojans and other kinds of malware that come disguised as normal enough downloads, but actually grant them access to your computer, and all of the data contained within it.
Often, the target is personally identifiable information (PII), like your name, social security number, address and the like. Using that information, these shady characters can steal your identity, empty bank accounts, or open lines of credit in your name. Other times, however, these types of hacks can rob of you something even more personal than your social security number: your dignity.
Using similar methods to those used to access the data on your computer, people can also activate webcams and microphones. Most modern laptops come equipped with webcams right above the screen, even if you don’t need or use one. See that little lens pointed at you while you read this? It could be recording you right now as you sip your coffee, and you likely would never know.
I’m not talking about tin-foil hat level conspiracy theories either. In 2010, a Pennsylvania school managed to dodge criminal charges when it was discovered that they had taken nearly 56,000 photographs of their students, sometimes while sleeping or partially undressed, by accessing their webcams using software intended to locate the computers if they were ever stolen. One of these students, Blake Robbins, filed a civil suit which led to a FBI investigation that uncovered over four hundred photos of the teenager taken by school employees over a single two-week period.
In 2013, a BBC reporter interviewed a seventeen-year-old that called himself “Matti.” Using simple malware programs, he was able to gain access to over five hundred stranger’s computers. He then sold that access to others. According to the teen from Finland, access to a woman’s webcam goes for about a dollar on the black market, and access to a man’s goes for just about a penny. The pictures and videos captured by these buyers are then sold online, featured on voyeurism websites, used for blackmail, or simply traded among like-minded creeps like baseball cards.
In September of 2016, FBI Director James Comey addressed how easily malicious people could gain access to our webcams, suggesting that everyone should place a piece of tape over the camera lens when not in use and likening it to the measures you use to keep your house safe.
“I hope people lock their cars,” he said. “Lock your doors at night… if you have an alarm system, you should use it. It’s not crazy that the FBI director cares about personal security as well… I think people ought to take responsibility for their own safety and security.”
So what can you do to prevent yourself from being the victim of this type of digital attack? The answer isn’t a big surprise. Make sure your computer is running a good quality anti-virus software suite, but the risk isn’t isolated to computers. Smart phones and tablets also require the same level of security to protect them from infection. Beyond that, take a page out of James Comey and Mark Zuckerberg’s books and cover your camera when you’re not using it. If your camera isn’t integrated, simply unplug it when it’s not in use.
Finally, change your passwords regularly, and don’t use something that’s easy to guess. Most of those celebrities that had their dirty laundry (and pictures) aired for the world to see last year were accessed by hackers who simply guessed their passwords. Often, they were things as simple as the word password, the person’s birthdate, or numbers like “12345.”
Although we imagine that hackers know a secret way to use the internet, and indeed some may, most nefarious “hacks” are simple grifts, just like con men have always used to get what they want out of the naïve or ill-informed. Because of this, simple security measures really can make the difference between seeing a picture of you dancing in your underwear on the homepage of a shady voyeur site, and keeping your love of show tunes a private affair between you and your dog. Remember, you don’t have to be famous to be a target, you just need a computer.
So do yourself a favor and throw a piece of tape over that lens above the screen. If it’s good enough for the director of the FBI and the CEO of Facebook, it’s good enough for you. Otherwise, you might want to start wearing pants at your desk – and nobody likes wearing pants.
Image courtesy of GQ