back to article Macbook webcams CAN spy on you - and you simply CAN'T TELL

Security researchers have confirmed that MacBook webcams can spy on their users without the warning light being activated. Apple computers have a “hardware interlock” between the camera and the light that is supposed to ensure the camera can't be activated without alerting the user by lighting a tell-tale LED above the screen …

COMMENTS

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So?

    Can this bypass that key bit of black tape that most people I know stick over the cameras built into their devices?

    If not then this is purely an exercise for those who really have nothing better to do.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Re: So?

      HERPERS DERPERS! YOU A GENIUS!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: So?

      Yes because the cameras are secretly able to operate in infrared which can penetrate the tape.

      Then there's the matter of the built-in microphones (including any hidden ones) with no indicators at all capable of recording even through the case: hole or no hole.

      1. ThomH Silver badge

        Re: So?

        It's not particularly secret that digital cameras can see infrared, is it? That's why you can use your phone to test whether the batteries have run out in your remote control.

    3. Fibbles

      Re: So?

      To be honest, if someone has pwned your system enough to be able to reprogram your webcam's firmware then the fact that they can see you gurning at the monitor is probably the least of your worries.

    4. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      Re: So?

      It isn't as if a researcher isn't quoted in the article as saying "“The safest thing to do is to put a piece of tape on your camera,” is it? Oh, wait ...

      Read the whole article before running to your keyboard.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Joke

    >Macbook webcams CAN spy on you - and you simply CAN'T TELL

    Ah ok - I'm not saying a word to anyone....

  3. Sander van der Wal

    There's a trick for that

    Duct tape to the rescue. Again.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: There's a trick for that

      What???

      All this time I've been using post-it notes and nobody told me!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: There's a trick for that

        > All this time I've been using post-it notes and nobody told me!

        The trouble with using post-it notes is that the camera can then read the password written on the back!

  4. MacroRodent Silver badge

    Nothing beats a physical shutter

    So, as usual, if there is programmable logic involved, all bets are off. This is something my Asus 1225B mini laptop gets right: Next to the built-in camera there is a all-mechanical slider, which puts an opaque shutter in front of the lens. The user-facing side of the shutter is light-colored so I can immediately see its state. Hack that!

    Apple owners can emulate this advanced security feature with a piece of duct tape.

    1. Khaptain Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Nothing beats a physical shutter

      For the Apple owners we could suggest some Tippex ( white-out)

      1. Don Jefe

        Re: Nothing beats a physical shutter

        No need to be that drastic, your friends at 3M now offer electrical tape in over 30 designer colors that aid in the identification of wires and look great with any decor and when applied to consumer electronics. Visit your local home improvement store or find them online at 3M.com.

        '3M, protecting your privacy with residue free surveillance management products for over 50 years'.

        1. Montreal Sean

          Re: Nothing beats a physical shutter

          Electrical tape? But that will run down my battery!

          :)

    2. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Nothing beats a physical shutter

      Why not simply wire an LED (including the appropriate resistor) in parallel with the camera's power supply? No stupid fancy logic; just a friggen wire.

      This assumes that the computer turns off the camera's power supply when not in use. Which should be SOP anyway.

      1. Don Jefe
        Happy

        Re: Nothing beats a physical shutter

        You've identified for yourself why they aren't done like that at the factory. Manufacturing costs don't calculate straightforward, at all. A part that costs $.04 might end up costing $.65 cents by the time it's installed especially if it's wired up (the wiring will probably be done manually, it's really hard to route wire by machine). That doesn't sound like much until you consider the tens of millions that will be produced every year. Reducing parts count by just one or two $.04 components equals many millions of dollars saved per year.

        If you want to do it yourself go for it. It won't be hard unless you're wanting to offer it as a service for a few million of your friends :)

  5. g e

    Yeah but it's a Mac

    So unless you can find really expensive super trendy tape no-one's going to do THAT to their prized look at me gadget. Plus you have to then answer people saying 'what's that stuck on your 'puter?

    'Oh, errr, people can spy on you using your Macbook camera'

    1. DropBear Silver badge

      Re: Yeah but it's a Mac

      I suggest you look up the iPatch (no, I'm not kidding). There are about a quintillion equivalent products as far as I can tell. So duct tape not necessary unless you aim specifically for ghetto aesthetics...

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Yeah but it's a Mac

        Some of them work in studios, so a scalpel, some tin foil and a wee touch of SprayMount will provide a very neat (though semi-permanent) solution.

        Otherwise, this stuff http://www.maplin.co.uk/p/3-multi-purpose-magnetic-tape-19mm-x-5m-n77gb makes it very easy to make a opaque sliding mechanism.

        1. Pookietoo

          Re: Otherwise, this stuff

          I think this might be better for muffling the microphone.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If you have to reprogram the firmware then it's not exactly a trivial hack is it?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Oh it is for the majority of l337s that lurk here apparently...

    2. Dan 55 Silver badge

      It's fairly trivial if you can reflash the iSight camera's firmware in userspace. Give me a week and even I could probably figure out a way to do that.

    3. jubtastic1
      WTF?

      Did you miss this bit:

      "To defend against these and related threats, we build an OS X kernel extension, iSightDefender, which prohibits the modification of the iSight’s firmware from user space."

      Whoa, you can reprogram the iSight firmware from userspace, that's a bit mad, I assume the next security update from Apple will plug that.

  7. messele

    Hey here's a new one.

    Y'know that camera and speaker on your phone? The only thing between them and the internetwebs in North Korea is a shaky piece of software.

    We're all doomed.

    1. moiety

      There's only so much surveillance you can get down the country's solitary V90 modem....Not too worried.

  8. Purlieu

    So

    who's surprised ?

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    FireWire iSight

    The old FireWire iSight never had this problem.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    i spy

    You're the Apple of their i

  11. DropBear Silver badge

    If I would expect to become a target of such shenanigans, frankly I'd be WAY more concerned about the built-in mic laptops tend to have these days - as noted, any cover takes care of the webcam, but there's no such guarantee about the mic, and that one doesn't even come with a warning light in the first place! Unless you expect to capture people constructing bombs in plain sight or counting suitcase-loads of money or evidence of some "adult action" or something, I'd think images won't do you all that much good. Listening to conversations, on the other hand...

    1. Trooper_ID

      I have discovered a 3.5mm jack plug inserted in the appropriate orifice disables the built in mike. Of course, it is pointless if you have a mike connected to the aforementioned 3.5mm jack. Personally I use aluminium foil over the webcam and an empty plug in the socket. Unobtrusive and aesthetic is the fruity orchard way.

      1. 142

        re: I have discovered a 3.5mm jack plug inserted in the appropriate...

        Is this a hardware function or a firmware/software function, though? I suspect it's the latter.

        1. Pookietoo

          Re: Is this a hardware function

          Quite possibly. Mechanical switching for a microphone socket is just like that used for an earpiece - the tip of the plug displaces a contact in the socket to physically disconnect the onboard device. PC motherboards tend to do it with logic though - it's not so easy mechanically switching a 5.1 output using only the front panel jack. :-)

  12. an it guy
    Happy

    so, older hyardware need not apply.

    I'm glad I have a laptop with no user facing camera. And no, not even on my phone. I can plug one in. That's much better

    And, yes, I'm feeling smug

  13. Wize

    But it is a Mac

    Everyone knows that Macs are bullet proof to the point of not needing any Antivirus.

    </sarcasm>

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: But it is a Mac

      You posted to the wrong forum/topic and your sarcasm tag is ineffective because there is no opening one.

      Also my Windows 7 has been running just fine without AV for years now so what is your point ?

      1. lambda_beta
        Linux

        Re: But it is a Mac

        The point is sarcasm! Did you miss it?

      2. Wize

        Re: But it is a Mac

        "...your sarcasm tag is ineffective because there is no opening one."

        The point was a thing called humour. Maybe you should do a little research.

        And I was not trying to write code that would parse in a compiler. I was saving it as a punchline to a joke. Punchlines are normally made at the end, not at the start.

        Or are you claiming you typed <sarcasm> once in a post and still haven't turned it off yet?

  14. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Pretty sure the next thing will be motherboards with various "pressure sensors" needed during "testing" that someone "forgot" to remove during the production run. And which just happen to be queryable from WebGL libraries.

    Yeah.

  15. Mondo the Magnificent
    Devil

    So, it can be done....

    ...but you have to be a frickin genius to do this

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: So, it can be done....

      These days: Genius == Able to do more with a computer than read Facebouque

  16. stu 4

    weird design decision

    can anyone shed light on why they'd design the LED to be programmable like that ?

    I mean, sure the basic way you'd engineer a power LED, is to connect it in line with the power (in this case to the webcam). webcam gets power, led on. job done.

    why on earth would you both to design electronics to make the two independent of each other UNLESS you wanted to be able to do such a thing ?

    1. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge

      Re: weird design decision

      I can't say why it was designed that way but the generic reasoning would be to give more capabilities, and more flexible options, than a simple LED across the camera power supply gives.

      For example the LED can be PWM controlled allowing it to be dimmed or brightened depending on ambient light levels, it can be flashed to indicate status, such as drawing attention to it if a physical shutter were closed and you were trying to use it. If taking still shots, the camera can be kept on and the LED flashed as each shot is taken.

      Should the LED be on when the power is on or on only when the camera is in use? We can argue that all day long and not have a universal consensus. Arguably the best solution is that which allows either and that's likely what the designer decided to do.

      Done this way the manufacturer or designer of the camera part doesn't have to worry about how the system integrator wants to use it or what they chose to use; they have all options available to them. If they want it to behave differently it's simply a firmware mod not a hardware redesign. In fact it allows old product to be upgraded to new functionality simply by uploading firmware to it. This would usually be seen as an advantage though in this case it also creates a problem.

      1. James Micallef Silver badge

        Re: weird design decision

        All true. In that case... 2 LEDs, one programmable and one linked physically, in different colours? Surely that's not going to be a big cost overrun? Even in terms of styling/visibility, you could have one 'pinhole' with the 2 LEDs behind it so aesthetically it looks like 1 LED, but functionally you get the best of both security and convenience.

        1. Down not across Silver badge

          Re: weird design decision

          "you could have one 'pinhole' with the 2 LEDs behind it so aesthetically it looks like 1 LED"

          ..or you could just use bi-color (or even rgb) LED and wire one colour across the power and remaining under firmware control.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: weird design decision

        "This would usually be seen as an advantage though in this case it also creates a problem."

        A Rather huge one too!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: weird design decision

      "I mean, sure the basic way you'd engineer a power LED, is to connect it in line with the power (in this case to the webcam). webcam gets power, led on. job done.

      why on earth would you both to design electronics to make the two independent of each other UNLESS you wanted to be able to do such a thing ?"

      Apple colluded with the NSA!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: weird design decision

      > why on earth would you both to design electronics to make the two independent of each other UNLESS you wanted to be able to do such a thing ?

      Good answer from Jason above, but there's an even simpler answer: supply chain and manufacturing flexibility.

      A combined LED & camera unit has to be custom manufactured to Apple's design so that the LED can be placed at the right distance from the camera. This makes the camera unit more specialised and less likely to be re-usable in another product, therefore more expensive.

      Separate components can be sourced independently and are standard, off the shelf, therefore cheaper.

      1. foxbatgb
        FAIL

        Re: weird design decision

        Supply chain was my reaction too. They sourced a camera. They sourced a LED. They sourced an MCU to link them together, job done.

        What people seem to be glossing over here is that reprogramming the firmware is possible from USER SPACE. In any operating system this is a *massive* fail and is exactly the sort of system-wide damage that running in user space is designed to prevent. I would expect an OS patch to be forthcoming post haste.

  17. phil dude
    Joke

    iSheild?

    Available from my website....?

    P>

  18. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    Did they really say that?

    I mean - hardware interlock?

    Because, clearly there is no hardware interlock if it can be bypassed by any means not involving wire clippers and a soldering iron and Apple is then clearly vulnerable to a law suit for deceptive and misleading advertising or something similar.

  19. bigtimehustler

    Right, so this 'exploit' requires reprogramming of the microchip controller, and how exactly is anyone going to do that remotely? presumably thats going to take some pretty extensive OS compromise to allow, if its even possible through the OS exposed API's and you don't actually have to remove the chips from the laptop to do this! Hardly a problem for the average user.

    1. Kevin Johnston

      remote re-programming?

      Maybe I read the article incorrectly but I thought it said that the two proof of concepts showed how they could remotely reprogram the firmware to allow the camera to be on while the light was off....

      Yep, just went back and re-read it and it clearly says they used two different ways to modify it remotely

      1. bigtimehustler

        Re: remote re-programming?

        It will require exploiting an OS vulnerability in that case, its not like you can just remote ask the OS to send data to programme the chips. The problem doesn't lie in the camera, once the OS is compromised then pretty much anything can be done firmware change wise. This just gets a story, where as a new OS exploit does not.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "Right, so this 'exploit' requires reprogramming of the microchip controller, and how exactly is anyone going to do that remotely? presumably thats going to take some pretty extensive OS compromise to allow, if its even possible through the OS exposed API's and you don't actually have to remove the chips from the laptop to do this! Hardly a problem for the average user."

      Your beloved shiny is FLAWED, get over it and move on!

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    an i-piece tape on your camera

    beautifully sculptured*, laser-cut* from NASA-strong* washable* uv-and-ms-resistant* graphene* designer* tape, as used by... * and seen on*

    Yours* for ONLY $199*, buy NOW!*

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. willi0000000

      Re: an i-piece tape on your camera

      be sure to design the $199* i-piece™ to be non-reuasble or the plebes will just be buying them. you know the type, the ones who put opened packs of designer ice back in the fridge.**

      * $199 does not include delivery to your estate by our fleet of designer helicopters.

      ** how tacky, not opening a new pack of designer ice when having the servants mix you, or a guest, a fresh drink.

  21. Ted Treen

    There ain't no foolproof any more...

    Whatever a software technician can produce, another of equal or greater skill/knowledge can usually find a way around. Almost any 'security' these days really means 'It's offered security up to now - as far as we know'.

    1. Old Handle

      Re: There ain't no foolproof any more...

      That's why something like this really should have been done with pure hardware, so it was literally impossible to power on the camera but not the LED, without physically modifying the device. As well know from Chernobyl, misleading indicators are worse than none at all.

  22. websey

    The thing with security is everyone wants it till it costs them, whether that is Money, Time, Aesthetics or any of the above then it goes out the window.

    For instance my company does the design and implementation of a large UK companies websites etc.

    We had a chat with their new Information Services Developer the other day and he asked us why certain things had been done the way they had, I said they didnt want to pay.

    He said thats ridiculous, I said wait till you try to get the bean counters to cough for anything, he rang me this morning apologising for his attitude and asked how we could work with such a bunch of numpties. Simple it pays the bills

  23. Tromos

    I'm safe

    Can't catch me out by messing around with the LED status on my lappy. The Samsung RF511 doesn't have a LED. So there!

  24. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    The good news is that we"ve found a new game!

    "I spy with my little i"

  25. Mike Bell

    Waiting to be impressed

    I'd be a little more impressed if they'd actually done this trick with a machine that was vaguely modern.

    Is it likely that the same interlock is being used after all these years? Dunno. But probably not, would be my guess.

  26. Gray
    Boffin

    Unrealistic expectations

    One steps out onto the public street to encounter cameras everywhere, on every pole on every building and street corner. Drive down the public road; a passing plod-car has just OCR'd your license tag and accessed the central database. Step into the back yard and wave to Google or the overhead satellite or the circling drone.

    Connect to the telephone system; the connection is recorded, possibly monitored. Connect to the internet, the IP is noted, cookies track the connections, and contents passed over the trunk are captured and archived.

    Go to the market; plastik transactions are tracked and archived. Surveillance cameras record your movements.

    Any use of links or terminals or pathways or byways exposes one to monitoring. Everything is available for capture. What is surprising is that we still get exercised when yet another fragment of supposed "privacy" is chipped away. So you've got a camera/microphone on your device. Is it truly surprising that our 'protectors' won't make use of them?

    Lock yerself away in yer bedroom, mates. Then only the parabolic microphone or the laser mic focused on your windows, or the infrared viewers probing through your walls can sense yer frustration.

    1. Sanctimonious Prick

      Re: Unrealistic expectations

      Yes it is bloody surprising! But you get an upvote anyway.

      I've often thought about the possibility of these surveillance techniques, but never thought it could be in any way legal. I thought that we were protected by laws. Laws that require a warrant to survey actions of an individual. I'm BLOODY surprised, that, as an Australian, an Australian company (Telstra) was obliged to share data about Australian's, just so they could do business with the all-mighty fucking USA!

    2. Old Handle

      Re: Unrealistic expectations

      But that's just the problem, the Macbook is IN my bedroom.

      (Well, no it's not, but it's in somebody's.)

  27. Christian Berger Silver badge

    Let's put that into perspective

    An attacker would have had to get root on your system to change the firmware inside your camera. If anybody can pull that off... the webcam will be your least problem.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why are people surprised?

    Remember it is an Apple product, they don't have faults just features!

  29. returnmyjedi

    I don't blame naughty hackers for wanting to spy on MacBook owners as they all look FABULOUS.

    1. Sanctimonious Prick

      If I ever meet your Mum, she will be slapped!

  30. tabman
    Devil

    Can this bypass that key bit of black tape that most people I know stick over the cameras built into their devices?

    Exactly, however the Mac devotees wouldn't want to spoil their shiny, expensive but underperforming bit of kit.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      If the camera can see infrared (which can pass through the tape), maybe.

  31. loneranger

    Better yet

    Just unplug the camera and any other microphone device from your computer, unless you are using it.

    1. Old Handle

      Re: Better yet

      That's a wee bit hard to do on a laptop.

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm more worring about hacked "Smartphones"

    Okay, hacked Laptop/Desktop cameras and microphones are bad enough. Unfortunately, I think there is a MUCH larger problem with Smartphone's being hacked as the damn things are always with us and are probably easier to hack.

    The NSA already has backdoors to most if not all communication devices and systems and once you add the GPS, Bluetooth, Acceleration, Compass and other built-in sensors to the cell phone cameras and mikes, you have a truly scary piece of very portable surveillance technology. The fact that batteries can't be removed from many cellphones is likely deliberate. Wanna bet they can read body temp, heartbeat, respiration rate too?

    BTW, Gray, you should know that various "Video Management Software" companies are currently working on solutions to connect personal cell phone cameras in a sort of "crowdsourced" video surveillance system.

    That way we can all become unwilling unknowing partners in police/government surveillance. They already have systems that use remote mikes to triangulate the position of gunshots, add some facial recognition & and Orwells Big Brother looks tame by comparison.

    1. bigtimehustler

      Re: I'm more worring about hacked "Smartphones"

      Batteries can't be removed from phones? I think perhaps you need to realise there are other phones on the market other than ones made by Apple and a good number of them do indeed have normal removable batteries.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: I'm more worring about hacked "Smartphones"

        "I think perhaps you need to realise there are other phones on the market other than ones made by Apple and a good number of them do indeed have normal removable batteries."

        I think perhaps you need to realise that companies OTHER than Apple are building phones with permanent batteries. Recent phones from the likes of HTC and Motorola spring to mind. Indeed, due to a demand for more battery life (and, if you're paranoid, a desire to steal control away from users), more phone manufacturers are doing this. I personally don't trust this (I insist on being able to yank a battery in case of a sleeplock or wakelock), but consumers aren't the only voice in the matter, and the consumer doesn't always win in this market.

  33. MrDamage
    Trollface

    Does this mean

    We can troll iUsers while they're busy fapping away to porn?

    Open up a text box and simply type "You're holding it wrong" and check their reaction.

  34. mfritz0

    A 1/8 inch slice of cork wood taped over the lens would work great.

  35. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    None of these tape ideas will work. Not unless the tape is used to hold a few layers of good old tinfoil over the camera.

    Blocks visible and infra-red light, and psychotronic mind-control rays.

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