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The FBI Director Puts Tape Over His Webcam (npr.org) 202

Martin Kaste, reporting for NPR: FBI Director James Comey gave a speech this week about encryption and privacy, repeating his argument that "absolute privacy" hampers law enforcement. But it was an offhand remark during the Q&A session at Kenyon College that caught the attention of privacy activists. Kaste points to a tweet by The Kenyon Collegian, "Comey admits he puts a piece of tape over the webcam lens on his laptop." The thought of the FBI chief taping over his webcam is an arresting one for many. His comment Wednesday was in response to a question about growing public awareness of the ways technology can spy on people, and he acknowledged sharing in the surveillance anxiety. "I saw something in the news, so I copied it. I put a piece of tape -- I have obviously a laptop, personal laptop -- 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." Not everyone is a fan. Security and privacy activist Christopher Soghoian said, "FBI Director Comey has created a "warrant-proof webcam" that will thwart lawful surveillance should he ever be investigated. Shame on him."
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The FBI Director Puts Tape Over His Webcam

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 09, 2016 @12:27PM (#51875099)

    The only people who would object to such surveillance are those who have something to hide.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      Just because you aren't doing something wrong doesn't mean you don't have something to hide.

      Example, many companies prohibit cameras and devices with cameras (phones, tablets, laptops, etc) in their offices and other facilities, This is to help protect their intellectual property from being seen by the competition.

      • Well, you're one penguin who just got Whoooooshed.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 09, 2016 @01:42PM (#51875525)

      The only people who would object to such surveillance are those who have something to hide.

      If one were to look closely enough at anyone, one can find something they are doing that is illegal. On average, everyone commits three felonies a day. [wsj.com] I guarantee you that if I looked into your life, I'd find something to put you in jail for.

      And with out wars on drugs, terrorism, child pornography, and the Patriot Act, we have turned into a police state. And with political parties having the elite choose who we get to vote for, I for one do not think we live in a free country any longer.

      We have given our freedoms away for security and there's no turning back.

    • So both the FBI director and the PM of the UK are now worried about privacy?
      • by dbIII ( 701233 )
        Meanwhile the CIA directory was wide open to the press, or maybe she was wide open to him.

        At that level if they spill secrets they are above the law - so much for Magna Carta and all the rest. Manning rots in jail for the same crime that Petraeus committed.
  • by ChodaBoyUSA ( 2532764 ) on Saturday April 09, 2016 @12:32PM (#51875135)
    Personally, I believe manufacturers should add a mechanical switch that disables camera and microphone that cannot be overridden via software.
    • by sims 2 ( 994794 )

      That would probably add 25 cents of cost to a $500 device.

      But yes, yes they should.

      • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Saturday April 09, 2016 @01:06PM (#51875331)

        That would probably add 25 cents of cost to a $500 device.

        It would cost far more than that just to handle all the tech support calls from people complaining that their cameras and microphones don't work.

        But yes, yes they should.

        No, they shouldn't. I trust black tape far more than I trust a mechanical switch that someone else installed.

        • I trust black tape far more than I trust a mechanical switch that someone else installed.

          Same here - but occasionally it's a problem. The black tape doesn't visibly stand out against the black bezel on my laptop, so it's easy to forget the tape is there on those two or three times a year I need to use the darn thing...

      • It used to be that WiFi and Bluetooth came with mechanical switches on the laptop.

        I love mechanical switches - sure, they wear out and are a pain to replace, but unless you have teleporting electrons, they kill the attached devices.

        They should make a comeback.

        • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

          I love mechanical switches - sure, they wear out and are a pain to replace, but unless you have teleporting electrons, they kill the attached devices.

          Except those switches for WiFi just send a signal to the WiFi card. That's it. It's up to the WiFi card to actually do something with that signal. The mini PCIe slot has a line for that switch - the switch just brings the line high or low and it's up to the card and firmware/driver to actually do something with it.

          • Yeap, I've experienced a Linux laptop that didn't care one bit about that switch. Wifi worked either way. Is more of a curiosity as I pretty much leave that switch set ON at all times. I like the idea of a blinder that physically moves in front of the camera, but it'll probably add .1 mm to the thickness and that makes it a total no-go nowadays.

            • "I like the idea of a blinder that physically moves in front of the camera, but it'll probably add .1 mm to the thickness and that makes it a total no-go nowadays."

              A decade ago, Logitech (among others) sold webcams with flip-down privacy covers. They flopped because noone bought them.

              A decade ago, several laptop makers sold models with sliding covers on their webcams. They flopped because noone bought them.

              Perhaps these ideas might return.

      • Also, what if you buy a device with a faulty switch? I think it needs another light to indicate the switch is off.
        • by sims 2 ( 994794 )

          My wifi switch already has this as long as wifi is on light is lit flip the switch light goes off wifi quits working.

          • My wifi switch already has this as long as wifi is on light is lit flip the switch light goes off wifi quits working.

            Is there anything to let you know if the light stops working?

            • by sims 2 ( 994794 )

              Well the light wouldn't be on when I switched the wifi on.

              But I suppose its not really the same as wifi is on 99% of the time so it would be more noticeable if its light didn't work than it would if the light on one of the built in webcams on one of my laptops didn't work as I don't remember checking to see if the webcams themselves even work.

    • by Max_W ( 812974 )
      Not a switch, please. A light plastic manual shutter, a blind, both for the camera and microphone. So that I can physically close it and unequivocally see that it is closed.

      Electronics can be hacked, but not physics.

      However, it seems that physically closing camera is in the same league as a strong encryption. I never saw it on any device, and I am sure it will remain this way.
      • I have a Dell all-in-one desktop at work that has a manual camera shutter. Wish that were standard.

        Same goes for microphone, wifi, and USB read-only sticks.

        • The little sliding cover is like the dummy pedestrian switches on traffic lights - it keeps you happy. The sliding cover is translucent. It just looks black to you, not to the camera.
      • The surface has to be opaque to all frequencies the camera can sense, not just those the user can see. Many cheap webcams can sense near-infrared (try pointing a TV remote at one & pushing a button), & there are black paints & plastics that are IR-transparent. Some webcams are also probably UV-sensitive to varying degrees. Normally, manufacturers try to avoid the IR response because it can make well-lit pictures look slightly off, but a particularly nefarious manufacturer could make an IR-transp
        • by KGIII ( 973947 )

          That's how you know if your remote has died. If you change the batteries and it's still not working then you point it at your cell phone's camera and check and see if the IR is detected. It has come in handy several times.

      • So, I'll just put the real spy camera next to the shutter and your dummy camera, underneath the translucent plastic bezel.
    • by Livius ( 318358 )

      Because I saw somebody smarter than I am

      Comey is acknowledging that *everyone* is smarter than him.

      I found his honesty refreshing.

    • mechanical shutter/slide for the camera, hardware disconnect for the microphone.

    • First it was having an 'indicator light' when the camera was in operation, and we were assured it was absolutey secure - until this came to light. (<URL:http://gizmodo.com/fbi-can-secretly-activate-laptop-cameras-without-the-in-1478371370/>) I read about someone who overcame a physical switch but have lost the link.

      Nonetheless, I would not assume any physical switch on a computer. It's read and execution based on the sensor is still software (or firmware, or microcode).

      It's not just the camera you n
      • by KGIII ( 973947 )

        Why not just remove the drivers or disable the device by the drivers? I suppose it's theoretically possible that they have an operating system underneath that's still able to turn on the camera but that seems a bit unlikely. Just disable the microphone and camera. It might also make a handy use for a 3D printer to cover the camera slot.

    • by antdude ( 79039 )

      How will that work for microphone? Close the hole? Would it really block all audio input?

    • by twms2h ( 473383 )

      And you would trust that switch?

      I wouldn't.

  • by Cytotoxic ( 245301 ) on Saturday April 09, 2016 @12:33PM (#51875139)

    Christopher Soghoian said, "FBI Director Comey has created a "warrant-proof webcam" that will thwart lawful surveillance should he ever be investigated.

    That is some high-quality satire right there. Too bad it will be lost on pretty much everyone outside our community. It is rare to see something so concise and on-point - thanks for including that quote!

    • by khasim ( 1285 )

      And he confuses "secrecy" and "privacy".

      Secret - criminals are secretly planning a crime.

      Privacy - Your daughter getting dressed in her bedroom.

      There is NOTHING wrong with "absolute privacy". The government needs to put more effort into their job and not just lobby to get more access to webcams.

    • Christopher Soghoian said, "FBI Director Comey has created a "warrant-proof webcam" that will thwart lawful surveillance should he ever be investigated.

      That is some high-quality satire right there. Too bad it will be lost on pretty much everyone outside our community. It is rare to see something so concise and on-point - thanks for including that quote!

      And if it were Joe Sixpack the FBI were investigating and his taping-over of the webcam annoyed the FBI, he'd be looking at a raft of charges like various (and possibly multiple) flavors of 'obstruction', interference in an investigation, evidence tampering, etc etc. An imaginative prosecutor/DA could likely come up with many more.

      Even if found innocent

    • "FBI Director Comey has created a "warrant-proof webcam" that will thwart lawful surveillance should he ever be investigated.

      I think we should sue Apple... to force them to go remove the tape from his webcam.

  • by jimtheowl ( 4200185 ) on Saturday April 09, 2016 @12:34PM (#51875145)
    I've always had tape on devices I own with embedded cameras (which are few), so this is not much of a 'thought' for me. Controlling the embedded microphone is far more difficult, especially on a tablet running a proprietary OS. For Android, there's always cyanogenmod,
    • by fyngyrz ( 762201 ) on Saturday April 09, 2016 @01:27PM (#51875441) Homepage Journal

      Controlling the embedded microphone is far more difficult

      Nah. A pair of wirecutters or a penknife "controls" the microphone in a monitor or laptop just fine. You can add your own switch to the broken conductor, and then you're back to "it's physics." Failing that, stick a pin in the hole and swish it around until it doesn't work any longer.

      If you simply kill the built-in mic, when you need one, plug in a USB mic. Painless. Probably a better mic, too.

      For a phone you can't really get into, keep it in a nice thick black bag. Or get rid of it entirely. It's always fun to actually, you know, talk to people in person. For those of us who still remember how... :) But again, you can probably kill the mic outright with nothing more than a pin. Then use a bluetooth headset when you want to talk.

      This isn't all that hard to solve. Yet.

      • I might be at odds with Frank Hebert's fiction, but my view on control does not include destroying the device. You controls only the act of destruction (which is always much easier). Once you destroy it, it is no longer in your control, and it obviously was not in your control before you did.

        I know that a lot of devices have USB ports, but not all of them do (including my Samsung tablet). I do not believe that they are to be found on iPads either.

        I do believe in talking to people in person, not car
        • by fyngyrz ( 762201 )

          iPads support external microphones. Some really good ones, in fact.

          But in any case, as I clearly stated, I was talking about monitors and laptops there, not ipads and phones.

          When I moved on to phones (and for that, you can read tablet in general if you like), I suggested destroying the mic and then using bluetooth and/or wifi. And if your tablet has no ability to handle such features (the iPad definitely does), then if this is important to you, just switch tablets.

        • "not carry chains" - Well, depending on the neighborhood, carrying a chain could be very useful. I once chased off five guys with a chain in my hand. It was the only thing I had available (my steering wheel anti-theft device) and it worked really well. I didn't even have to use it - just let it dangle visibly - and they took off at great speed.
  • Here in my area I'd say about 1 in 20 have the cameras taped over and once in awhile I see someone with the camera taped over on their phone and tablet.

    Although I have not seen one person that's set up a defense for a hot mic yet.

  • Who doesn't? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 09, 2016 @12:43PM (#51875207)

    Seriously, are there really people who don't put tape on their web cams?

    • Re:Who doesn't? (Score:5, Informative)

      by AF_Cheddar_Head ( 1186601 ) on Saturday April 09, 2016 @12:50PM (#51875251)

      I don't, but then I make sure Dell sends me the SKU that the DoD orders when I order my laptops. You know, the one that is camera delete. Every major manufacturer has a SKU for the DoD that eliminates the camera and has a physical switch that disables the wireless chip, and the DoD tests to make sure the wireless is really disabled. If the company sales rep says he doesn't know anything about it tell him to talk to the DoD sales rep.

      Yes, they will sell to non-DoD customers. You would think the head of the FBI would do this too.

      • I don't, but then I make sure Dell sends me the SKU that the DoD orders when I order my laptops

        Sure, but since it's a SKU for government purchase, your laptop will cost $25,000.

    • by CajunArson ( 465943 ) on Saturday April 09, 2016 @01:07PM (#51875333) Journal

      Bitch I run Linux on my laptop!
      If the NSA can get the camera to work in the first place, then more power to them!

      • Re:Who doesn't? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 09, 2016 @04:08PM (#51876179)

        Personal anecdote: I have installed Linux Mint on a fair number of different semi-modern laptops over the last few years. On every single one of them, everything has simply worked, out of the box, including webcams, networking (wired as well as wireless), bluetooth, sound and graphics.

        So, I get the joke, but it doesn't have much bearing on reality these days, in my experience.

      • by godrik ( 1287354 )

        Actually that is my strategy too. I run linux and my life is essentially on my laptop. If you can read my camera, I am already way more fucked than I would like. At this point, I don't care if they take a picture of me.

      • by KGIII ( 973947 )

        sudo modprobe -r uvcvideo should do the trick. Hmm... Yeah, you can push that to run on boot and then just enable it when you need it. For the mic? I dunno. I guess you can tear it out of the kernel. There's the master volume thingy and you should be able to switch it off in that. Well, not off. You put it on mute. alasomething-or-other? I dunno, Google probably does. I'm not gonna go digging through books and my bash_history to find it.

    • I use a square of the sticky part of a yellow sticky note.

  • Is it news? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Artem Tashkinov ( 764309 ) on Saturday April 09, 2016 @12:50PM (#51875255) Homepage

    I vividly remember that one of Snowden's documents said that CIA had been dealing with webcam OEMs for years and CIA basically made them implement a special feature in their drivers which allowed them to spy on the user without turning on the camera LED.

    Which means you cannot trust your camera LED anymore. Which means you should cover it at all times unless you're OK with someone unknown videotaping you.

    • Re:Is it news? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Artem Tashkinov ( 764309 ) on Saturday April 09, 2016 @12:54PM (#51875267) Homepage
      Oh, here it is: FBI can spy on you through your webcam without triggering the indicator light... and has had the technology for several years [dailymail.co.uk]. That's from 2013. I really doubt anything has changed in this regard, i.e. most, if not all, computer webcams are spying devices.
      • Re:Is it news? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Saturday April 09, 2016 @02:15PM (#51875699)
        This isn't some new capability, nor is it exclusive to the FBI. Hackers and script kiddies have turned it into an underground industry primarily aimed at spying on young women [arstechnica.com].

        If you don't use your webcam, you'd be stupid not to cover it with tape. Comey isn't doing it because he knows the government can use it to spy on him as TFA and summary implies. He's doing it because he knows the emperor has no clothes and anyone can use it to spy on him.
        • He's doing it because he knows the emperor has no clothes and anyone can use it to spy on him.

          Which drives home the point that anytime you open a backdoor for the government, it will inevitably be found and used by others.

      • Re:Is it news? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Scot Seese ( 137975 ) on Saturday April 09, 2016 @07:19PM (#51876813)

        It has been alleged for years that they can also remotely activate the built in microphone(s).

        This is problematic as the internal microphones - such as the one(s) used in most Apple MacBook models - are internal, and don't feature a single, easily plugged or taped-over hole. Rather they use the thousands of perforations in the speaker grille (in the MacBook Pro) or other non-obvious openings.

        The real issue here is that Americans used to believe their intelligence services were careful, and used traditional investigative techniques to build significant evidence to obtain wiretapping or eavesdropping warrants. In the post-Snowden world in which we live, that curtain was savagely ripped away, revealing the malevolent bulk meta data trawling, phone tapping, email sifting cloud storage plundering intelligence agency wizards trampling the constitution underfoot on a scale that should have Mount Rushmore weeping giant granite tears.

        I have yet to see a single article where a single one of these federal agencies has been asked by a journalist to provide an example of a spectacular attack that was thwarted by all this Stazi level intelligence apparatus. Not one. You would think they would trot out precrime planning stage arrests on a regular basis to assuage the fears of an anxious public, but NooooOoOo, no such luck. Just trust us, folks!

  • I use medical adhesive tape because it's opaque and doesn't leave much residue. And a 1/2" wide roll was the first thing I found last time I looked for tape. It's not about back doors and government spying for me. It's about malware. I don't put tape on my phone, tho. Most of the time, one camera's pointed at the ceiling and the other is pointed at the table.

    If you want something less tacky, you can get slider covers. Search for "webcam cover".

    • by AJWM ( 19027 )

      You'd think there'd be some demand for 3D-printable clip-on lens covers for popular webcams, laptops, etc.

      Last time I looked (a while back) I couldn't find such.

  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Saturday April 09, 2016 @12:59PM (#51875291) Homepage

    Dont really care about watching him.....

    Now using the built in microphone to listen? a LOT more information is gained that way... If he was a competent FBI director he would order hardware WITHOUT a webcam or built in microphones and would have a team inspect it first.

    • If he was a competent FBI director he would order hardware WITHOUT a webcam or built in microphones and would have a team inspect it first.

      The FBI Director is a lawyer by training. It's been obvious for years he's not particularly technically savvy.

      Frankly, while I realize he's not out-and-out stupid - he doesn't seem to be the brightest bulb in the box.

    • Not meaning to be snotty, but can you suggest a decent laptop that has neither a camera nor a microphone? I cannot recall the last time I saw such a beast.
      • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

        Any HP or Dell business class has a high security or DOD model with that deleted.

  • As thick as they come.

    I also tape over the little MIC hole, even on my Wii U console and any other devices that comes with a camera/mic.
    Other than that, I've got mechanical switches on my Studio Mics. They're almost always set to OFF.
  • by tgibson ( 131396 ) on Saturday April 09, 2016 @01:34PM (#51875495) Homepage

    Comey admits he puts a piece of tape over the webcam lens on his laptop.

    And I just thought his webcam was broken. Silly me.

  • I use Linux, my WebCam Works. So does the LED. But there was a previous Kernel revision where the Camera LED did NOT turn on. This was fixed. If I wanted to be sure my Camera couldn't use used to spy. I either could tape it or unload the driver.

    • When an attacker has enough access to your system to switch on your web cam, an unloaded driver won't be too much of a hurdle.

  • I had a Chiquita Banana sticker on my notebook cameras since they day they didn't come anymore with that plastic slider to close them.

  • It is a good idea to mask a laptop's camera, but what about smartphones? They could be hacked too.
  • JFK was actually presented with a plan from our own military to bomb Miami, Fl. and blame it on Cuba in order to justify a war with Cuba. JFK thankfully rejected the idea. My point being is that even when government has good intentions it can be very, very dangerous. Another example is police agencies handing data to places outside of government such that there is no way to subpoena records. Even local police agencies often have exhaustive yellow sheets on almost everyone in their jurisdiction. Tho

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