2021 Edition: Should you cover your webcam?

In the last year, there’s a good chance you’ve learned more about working from home than you ever wanted. You’ve beefed up your home workspace and added things like a webcam to your monitor. And that camera stares at you, every day while you wonder if anyone can see you at your desk.

Honestly it’s ok to be paranoid.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work. Your webcam, whether built into your device or external, is supposed to have a light that only goes on when the camera is in use. But that light is controlled by software, not hardware. It is very possible for a determined hacker to gain access to your webcam without your knowledge.

Possible, but not likely. This would require a lot of malware all working right in order for this to happen. But, it could happen. Depending on what you do on your computer all day, it might be worth thinking about.

Your boss may be part of the problem

If you’ve embraced Microsoft 365 (the product formerly known as Office) you might have read that the Teams app gives your employer a lot of options for tracking your activity. As far as I know, turning on your webcam without your permission isn’t one of them. But, there certainly are a lot of other things which may make privacy advocates a little wary and I think that webcam monitoring is very possible with Teams.

Are built-in webcams safer?

There’s nothing inherently safer about a laptop webcam as opposed to an external one. However, the last year has seen a flood of inexpensive off-brand webcams coming in and people (myself included) have bought them. You don’t know what these brands are all about and yet you’ve bought them because you needed something. Webcams were in short supply in the first half of 2020 and you might have just taken what you can get.

An inexpensive webcam could have a non-functioning light or just not respect software the way it should. And that’s honestly what scares me about them.

Good advice: Cover when not in use

You don’t need to spend a lot on a webcam cover. A business card or sticky note works pretty well. Just use it when you don’t want your webcam to be used. This isn’t going to stop the built-in microphone, but it’s something.

Be aware that if you have a laptop, especially a premium one, that those stick-on webcam covers can actually damage your hardware. If they press on the screen when you close the lid, they can break it. That’s not good.

What I do: just unplug it

I have a work-issued computer, just like everyone else. I keep the lid closed and have put a piece of low-tack tape over the built-in microphone.

I keep an external camera and microphone connected to a USB hub. You can see them in some of the more recent videos I’ve shot. When I’m not using them, I unplug the USB hub. There’s no way a webcam or a microphone can work if it’s unplugged. I know for sure that no one is tracking me without my permission that way.

There’s still a very small chance that your technology can be used this way but I say, better safe than sorry.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.