There’s a good reason so many people put tape over their computer webcams or use a dedicated webcam cover to shut them off: Webcams can be hacked, which means hackers can turn them on and record you when they want, usually with a “RAT” or remote administration tool that’s been secretly uploaded.
This type of attack may target anyone. Ransomware attempts generally try to take control of anything that can be used to make cash. As a result, many malware try to infect webcams so hackers can (potentially) get content suitable for extortion. To keep your webcam privacy, it’s important to have good anti-malware software — but you should also know the signs if someone has gained control of your cam. Here’s what to watch for.
The light on your webcam turns on at strange times
This is one of the easiest problems to look for: Your computer webcam should have a tiny indicator light beside it. You can see it turn on when the webcam is activated for something like a video conference.
However, if you notice this indicator light turning on at odd times, especially when you aren’t using it, this is a telltale clue that someone has taken control of your webcam from a distance and uses it to take a look.
If you notice this happening, you should quickly check your active apps, including apps currently active in the background. See if any running apps are turning on your webcam by themselves. In most cases, no app should ever turn on your webcam without your explicit permission, so this is already a good reason to delete any apps you find responsible — or at least make some serious adjustments to their settings and access. But in some cases, it could be an issue with app settings activating the webcam when the app turns on, and it’s important to rule this out when seeing if you’ve been hacked.
Your browser extensions are turning on your webcam
Browser extensions are another potential cause of your webcam turning on without your knowledge. Check to see if it seems your webcam indicator light turns on every time you open your internet browser (Chrome, Firefox, etc.). That’s a clue that you have an extension or add-on on your browser using your cam.
You can disable all your extensions and then enable them again one by one, then restart your browser each time to narrow down which extension may be causing the problem. Is that extension actively trying to hack you? Maybe not — it could just be a poorly designed extension. Either way, you are better off without it. Delete the culprit and look for a different solution.
There are unexpected webcam video files stored on your computer
Let’s say that a hacker does manage to take remote control of your webcam, turns it on, and tries recording with it. What happens then? Well, malware may be very advanced in some ways, but it’s very limited in others, and that means that those recorded videos are still getting saved to your hard drive — even if a hacker is trying to collect them.
This means one of the easiest ways to check if you’ve been hacked is to open up your hard drive folders and check for weird webcam video files that you didn’t save. You would be surprised how many people never notice that these files exist or how easily they can get lost in messy file systems. The video files may have random names or tags, so check out any strange video files and see if it looks like some have been created with malicious intent.
To find them, try searching for a dedicated webcam folder, as most webcams will automatically save videos to their own files when they are being used to record. This is usually in your documents section. Otherwise, check other video folders that your computer has created in this area.
Your security settings have been changed in weird ways
Malware may also change security settings to make it easier to control the webcam and send or receive video files (among other mischiefs). Open your webcam app and check on its security and accessibility settings to see if anything looks out of place or suspiciously disabled. Watch particularly for webcam passwords that have been changed or removed and strange apps that have access to your camera. In Windows 10, you can also disable the ability for apps to access your camera at all, which could be a great choice.
If you have antivirus software, check to see if its webcam protections have been disabled or changed — look for limited-access features that are disabled and webcam notifications (alerts that tell you when the webcam is being used) that have been disabled, as these are typically automatically enabled when the software is activated. Not all antivirus software has webcam features, but they are definitely worth checking up on.
Check your operating system security to see if any firewalls or other security measures have been recently disabled. Keep an eye on these settings over time, so you’ll know if it looks like they’ve been suddenly changed.
Your virus scan reveals suspicious apps
Good antivirus software is skilled at scanning your computer for suspicious files or activity. If you have an antivirus app, run a manual scan, and see if it reports any malware or suspicious activity on your computer. Take a look at the specifics to see if your webcam may have been compromised, and be sure to have your antivirus software remove any suspicious apps or content.
Malware can try to install a RAT on your system to gain access to your webcam; a practice sometimes called “camfecting.” Widespread malware attacks that have used this tactic include Blackshades, Rbot-GR, Mirai, and InvisiMole. If your antivirus software mentions potential infection by anything like this, then you know what may have happened to your cam.
If you don’t have an antivirus app, then you’ll love our guide to the best free options available.
You get a message from a hacker
If worse comes to worst, a hacker will message you and attempt extortion over webcam videos. That’s how they try to get money — often through an obscure bitcoin wallet address or a similar payment method.
Treat these messages as you would any phishing attempt. They almost always contain lies about what a hacker has done or what they have access to, and they are often a vehicle to install ransomware on your computer in the first place. Usually, hackers pick up contacts and password info from lists on the dark web and send thousands of these emails at a time, hoping someone gets scared enough to send them money. There’s no reason to believe anyone has control over your webcam unless they actually provide evidence of webcam footage.
If you get a message, don’t respond. Don’t click any files or links, even if the message says it contains evidence of webcam videos. Don’t send money to anyone. Instead, install and run some robust anti-malware software to help check for any problems, and change your passwords to heighten your security. A good password manager can help you automatically generate strong passwords, or you can practice our tips on choosing better passwords if you create your own.