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Everyone Uses Laptops Now, but Privacy Remains a Concern

There's a little known secret about MacBook webcams that you should know.

Graphic by Gabriella Novello

If your laptop has a camera, try saying hi to the person peeking through your webcam next time your computer is open.

OK, it’s more likely that no one actually hacked into your laptop camera, but research showed that it could be done. In 2013, researchers proved that MacBook webcams could be hacked into without turning the light that indicates a camera is on. With so much of our daily lives spent online, something must be done to protect online privacy. We could wait for more expensive technology to arrive, or maybe a Band-Aid just might do the trick.

The power of technology today is incredible. As a millennial, I was one of the last generations to grow up without an iPad thrown at my face to keep me tame. Now, children as young as two-years-old will sit in their parents’ shopping cart at the grocery store with a giant iPad in their tiny hands.

This power, in the hands of almost everyone now, can wield awesome innovation and creativity around the world. It can also help hackers enter any computer they want through its camera. Stephen Checkoway, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins, and Matthew Brocker, a graduate student, co-authored a study proving MacBook cameras could be remotely turned on without turning its warning light on.

The thought of Apple joining the list of tech companies that failed the privacy test should be concerning to people that have an Apple ecosystem, from the iPhone to the Macbook. Every part of my online life is on an Apple product, so I took some advice.

Consider this—former F.B.I. Director James Comey is a cautious man and still covers his laptop’s camera. “I put a piece of tape over the camera. Because I saw somebody smarter than I am had a piece of tape over their camera,” Comey told an audience in 2016.

Obviously, someone in the position as Comey’s would need to be extra cautious, but for the millions of Apple Mac users, the extra safety measures could go a long way. Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg covers his webcam. It’s no wonder that Facebook itself has a security problem if its creator is paranoid himself.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg takes a photo to promote Instagram and his protected laptop is caught in the corner.

Nevertheless, these men raised an important issue that many consumers brush off too easily. Simply having your computer open leaves yourself exposed to someone else snooping on you through your laptop’s camera. Apple products are designed to prevent this from happening with its warning light, but one computer scientist and graduate student were able to bypass it. It doesn’t even need to be a hacker.

Imagine if it was your school. In 2010, Pennsylvania's Lower Merion School District evaded criminal charges after a high school student accused them of taking private photos of him through his school laptop’s camera. An investigation found that the school’s tracking software for stolen or lost laptops also captured images of students every 15 minutes.

This case showed that anyone could be a victim of a cybercrime, especially intrusion. We use computers now more than ever before, from paying bills online to binge shopping on Amazon. We save our passwords because we’re too lazy to login every time we want to check Twitter. Credit cards are saved online to make online shopping faster than it’s ever been. Now that so many of us live online, the legal world is scrambling to catch up.

Although the laws haven’t caught up with technology yet, it’s the little things consumers can do that go a long way. Any laptop with a camera can be covered with a small Band-Aid or medicine tape. Don’t take it from me, the F.B.I. does it, too. Sure, it’s an odd accessory for an advanced technology. But, wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry?

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Everyone Uses Laptops Now, but Privacy Remains a Concern
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