August 13, 2019
The very idea that webcams can be vulnerable is unnerving to end users. In order to build trust in brand awareness, manufacturers need to keep abreast of the growing concerns and behaviors around webcam security, particularly when it comes to user privacy.
An online survey conducted by research firm Edelman Intelligence on behalf of HP between May and June of 2019 polled 3,000 consumers who own a laptop with an internal webcam. The study found that 74 percent of Americans said that they shut themselves off from all other aspects of their lives when they are in front of their laptop webcam. At the same time, 79 percent of U.S. respondents admitted they know their privacy could be compromised through vulnerabilities in their webcam, the survey said.
People Are Talking
From social media to casual conversations, people are increasingly warning each other about the reality that webcams can be hacked. “The concern around webcam privacy has permeated into pop culture, from headline grabbing images of well-known figures covering their webcams with post-its to storyline arcs in popular TV shows,” a July 16 press release stated. Perhaps not surprisingly, 43 percent of those surveyed confessed that they had learned about webcam hacking through social media. Another 40 percent said they came to understand the reality of webcam threats after they had seen a hack dramatized in a movie or television show.
Others (38 percent) have learned about webcam hacking in conversation, all of which has left more than 6 in 10 respondents fearful that their privacy could be compromised.
While awareness of risk is high, that doesn’t necessarily prevent users from getting in front of the camera. Risk awareness does reportedly change their behaviors when they find themselves potentially within the camera’s view. According to the survey results, 59 percent of respondents said that in their “always connected worlds”, they are taking steps to cover their laptop webcam.
The question, ”If you were in the view of your laptop’s webcam while you were doing the following, what would you be most likely to do?” yielded responses that ranged from turn off my laptop’s webcam or physically cover my laptop’s webcam with something to close my laptop.
Both women and men feel vulnerable to the potential of having their privacy compromised when using their laptop webcam, especially those who have been victims of domestic violence, who are worried their laptops can be turned into stalking devices.
Why Manufacturers Need to Be Concerned
Consumer fears are not unfounded. In February of this year, a Wall Street Journal columnist, Joanna Stern, asked an ethical hacker to try breaking into her computer through her webcam.
After giving Alexander Heid, certified ethical hacker and chief research and development officer at Security Scorecard, permission, Stern discovered, “it was possible for Mr. Heid to get into my Windows 10 laptop’s webcam and, from there, my entire home network. He also eventually cracked my MacBook Air.”
Stern was informed enough to have protections that thwarted Heid’s access to both operating systems, and she had to be intentionally careless in order for him to eventually have free rein of her device and home network. But expecting that the average consumer will have the same protections in place as a personal technology columnist is beyond wishful thinking.
Slightly less than half of the HP survey participants admitted that they feel comfortable leaving their laptops open. However, only 1 in 10 respondents reported that they themselves have had their webcam hacked or know someone else whose webcam was hacked via their webcam. The math doesn’t really add up there, and it’s up to security vendors and manufacturers to close that gap between fear and reality for consumers.
Not surprisingly, the more intimate the activity, the higher the level of expressed discomfort. Among those surveyed, respondents felt most uncomfortable having a webcam open while using the bathroom (81 percent), being intimate (80 percent), sleeping (63 percent), crying (64 percent), working out (55 percent) and eating dinner (46 percent).
The issue of webcam security comes down to trust. Given that an overwhelming majority of respondents (more than 8 in 10) said that laptop manufacturers should make it easier to turn off a laptop’s webcam, according to the study, manufacturers need to be thinking about how to build consumer trust.
Nearly half of those who participated in the survey said that turning off a webcam in a laptop’s settings takes too much effort, and the vast majority (79 percent) would like to be able to turn the webcam off with the flip of a switch.
“Device and app manufacturers should be designing with privacy and security in mind, not bolting protections on after the fact,” wrote Lysa Meyers, security researcher at ESET in a June 25 blog post.
“These companies need to have privacy policies in place that are published in highly visible places, as well as instructions regarding how to report security issues, including the relevant contact information. Internally, they should also have incident response plans in place so that they can quickly address reported problems.”
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