Are the cameras on our phone a portal into our daily lives for the sake of Big Brother's amusement? All the memes and trending Twitter topics joking about FBI agents who spy on us through our devices seem to believe so, albeit only in a funny way. While you might be used to seeing laptop cameras covered by Post-It notes at local cafes that operate as co-working environments, should you cover your phone camera, too? While there's no reason to panic — especially if you're just offering the view of your face chewing dinner while you catch up on Riverdale on the CW app like me — there are certain precautions experts advise us to take.
The internet and users privacy has always been a little troubling. Data that we enter becomes information that has the potential to be breached. Our phones are unfortunately neither diaries nor lock safes, even though they often feel like intimate devices tucked into the safe nest of our palms and purses. If our data can be hacked, can our cameras?
Do we really operate in a world where everyone should tape both their front facing and back camera lenses on their phones and computers? Is there a security problem? Are we all documentarians of our own Truman Show? Well, according to some security experts around the 'web, it doesn't hurt to cover it up when you're not exploring goofy Snapchat face filters.
Memes created by Twitter users dedicated to the "FBI agent assigned to my phone" come off as a hilarious form of self deprecation. They often illuminate the basic and shameless activities we do in the presence of our phone. While relatable and therefore, funny, I also don't want my webcam activated when I'm minding my own business.
In 2016, former FBI director James Comey gave a speech at Kenyon College in which he admitted to covering his web cameras with tape. So, if a former director of the FBI is taping over cameras on his devices, we should probably all be digging in our desk drawers for scotch tape and Post-It notes, right? NPR reported that Comey's comments came from, "the context of a larger comment about the need for the public to keep an eye on how government uses its surveillance powers." It's not unreasonable to have anxiety over the probability of your camera being hacked.
The Washington Post reported that, "The FBI has been able to covertly activate a computer’s camera — without triggering the light that lets users know it is recording — for several years, and has used that technique mainly in terrorism cases or the most serious criminal investigations." So, you're not wrong: The technology exists for your webcam to be activated without your knowledge. However, if your only crime is crying over Harry Styles for the millionth time in one week, it's more likely that an FBI Agent has bigger mysteries to solve than your totally understandable emotional attachment to a pop star.
But even if your webcam isn't being constantly monitored by an FBI agent, that doesn't mean that it is not unhackable though — and that's where things get scary. An article on the web hacking epidemic in The Atlantic describes Remote Access Tool (RAT) as, "software that allow a third party to spy on a computer user from afar, whether rifling through messages and browsing activity, photographing the computer screen, or in many cases hijacking the webcam and taking photographs of whomever is on the other side." While these instances might be more of a rare occurrence than your data being breached, it does happen.
The Atlantic continues to report that, "School districts have used RATs to spy on students in their bedrooms; rent-to-own computer stores have secretly watched their customers." When hackers break into your webcam, they have the ability to take screenshots of you in what you assumed to be a private moment. While these instances are related to webcams built into computers, your phone is also at risk for being hacked.
Software developer PSafe's Blog reads, "Because our smartphones are more versatile and travel everywhere with us, they are also more of a target for hackers and crooks to break into. After all, once they hack a phone camera, they can easily see much more than what a laptop would be able to show." Meaning that it would be a good idea to cover your phone's camera.
On the other hand, though, cybersecurity fellow at New America Tarah Wheeler told Teen Vogue reporter Nicole Koble in Feb. 2018, "the truth is that you should be much more concerned about your personal data than your webcam or your phone’s front-facing camera (which no one covers with a sticker)." It makes sense: While your phone is not impenetrable, it's more unlikely that you'll be hacked for your personal data than your pictures.
There might not be an FBI agent in your phone — they need a search warrant for that, for the record. But, if your phone is acting strange (like you're getting ineligible text messages, emails, or your photos seem to be moving around) get your phone checked out by a professional. Check your phone bills and keep an eye on your battery power, informational website Quora advises, if you suspect your phone of being hacked by malware.
To keep your camera safe from being compromised there are a few things you can do. Make sure that you have a strong password, and tape the camera just in case. You can simply block the view of you from your camera with tape or specially made stickers for your phone which you can find on Amazon. Taping your phone's front facing camera is an exercise in precaution.
It's not worth a panic attack or hyping paranoia, but it's important to know that these devices can be hacked. And it's important to know how to protect yourself and your information as well as private pictures in more ways than just tape.