Your Computer May Be Watching You

If you have ever got the feeling someone was watching you while you were using your computer, tablet or smartphone, it could be because someone is. You may well be sitting there while someone, somewhere out there, is commanding your electronic device to transmit pictures of you and what you are doing.

You might assume that if you haven't given electronic orders to the camera, it's shut off. But this might send a chill down your back. The friendly folks at the US's National Security Agency - the omnipresent spy agency dominating the news, and not in a good way - recently released a little two-page primer on tips to "harden" your computer against attacks.

One eye-catching bit of advice is to "Disable Integrated iSight and Sound Input" on Mac machines - the handbook was written explicitly for Mac devices but it is safe to assume the same applies to all built-in Webcams on other computers and devices.

"The best way to disable an integrated iSight camera is to have an Apple-certified technician remove it," according to the NSA Systems and Network Analysis Center. "Placing opaque tape over the camera is less secure but still helpful. A less persistent but still helpful method is to remove /System/Library/Quicktime/QuicktimeUSBVDCDigitizer.component , which will prevent some programs from accessing the camera."

And don't forget to mute or disable the internal microphone of these devices, the document says.

This comes as no surprise as anything with an Internet connection is vulnerable to attacks. The real surprise is that this advice came from the very agency now infamously known for conducting covert cyber-snooping and surveillance on ordinary citizens, as the former NSA contractor turned fugitive Edward Snowden has alleged.

But if even the NSA doesn't trust those Webcams, why should you? Irrational paranoia or cold reality?

The real issue is that most people have become thoroughly accustomed to these devices, it is indeed almost oxymoronic behavior to disable or give up on those innovations and gadgets supposedly designed to give us a modern digital lifestyle and to make us more efficient and put us abreast with the real world.

A hard pill to swallow? Consider this.

There are reportedly now special spy apps designed for smartphones. You don't have to be interested in them. You don't have to buy and install these apps. More importantly, you don't even need to know about them. Their very existence simply makes everyone highly vulnerable.

All it takes is for someone to install one of these apps on his/her phone and then covertly target another phone. The innocent victimized phone will then serve as a live broadcast for all the actions and conversations of the phone owner, or whoever was holding it or in proximity to that phone - who wouldn't even have the slightest clue as the compromised phone remains in rest mode in the midst of these intrusions.

The implications? Just imagine using the compromised phone in business meetings or say, on personal concerns, in the washroom - remember most smartphones these days come with front and rear cameras.

A client recently shared his concerns about these intrusive apps. But it is hard to give up the smartphone, he acknowledged.

The same good old words of wisdom: remove the SIM card and battery during important business meetings or private conversations. To go a step further, leave the phone outside the meeting room or inside a zip-loc plastic bag. Snowden was known to leave his phone inside the fridge, which works fine at home but isn't so convenient in a business setting. And what if the phone rang and you missed the calls?

The simple solution is to forward all calls to a spare old-fashioned mobile phone with a spare SIM card. Yes, those good old Nokias and the likes that are designed solely for phone calls and free of camera, internet connection, wi-fi, bluetooth, etc. Any phone but a smartphone.

So the choice is, give up the smartphone altogether or forward all calls to the spare phone, especially during those private, important conversations when you feel compelled to disable the smartphone. The forwarding function still works even when the smartphone is stripped of its SIM card and battery.

Now, it is fair to ask if the world has gone berserk. What is the point of buying sophisticated computers with all the digital add-ons and then disabling them? Using smartphones and reverting to old fashioned cellulars?

Well, just look at the Kremlin. The FSO, successor to the Russian KGB, announced last month a move to boost security of its communications and safeguard against cyber-snooping and NSA eavesdropping. The solution? Electronic typewriters.

(Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence and commercial investigations practice specialized in the Greater China region. Blog: A different version of this appears in the Standard of Hong Kong.)