Is your laptop or phone camera spying on you?

It seems like it’s more and more appropriate to be paranoid today. We learn of cases where our devices have tracked us. We find our our credit card numbers or email passwords are stolen, years after it happens. And it doesn’t help when we go to movies that show the ways that technology can trap us.

That’s when we look at our oh-so-treasured devices and realize that they are rife with cameras and microphones. Our phones have them, our laptops have them, even our watches have them. It’s a wonder that cameras and microphones aren’t sewed into our clothes, if you think about it.

How can our cameras spy on us?

Most laptop cameras have a light that is supposed to tell us when the camera is on. Most phones don’t. In fact in some phones like Apple’s iPhone X series at least one camera is on practically all the time. It’s used to measure your face so the phone only unlocks for you.

The truth is that there’s no way to know for sure if the camera on your device is on and recording. There are plenty of ways to make the camera come on without the light, it’s not like there’s a physical wire connection between the two. It wouldn’t be hard for PC-based malware to turn on your camera and stream everything it sees.

While phones with metered data plans would obviously show increased usage if the camera were broadcasting everything, many people have moved to unlimited plans where you just don’t notice extra usage unless you really look.

How likely is it that our cameras spy on us, though?

Right now, it doesn’t seem that likely. The first thing is, you’re not that interesting. For most people, the camera will catch them staring at the device a lot, which simply isn’t that entertaining. There are other forms of malware like keyloggers which would do a better job of exposing your personal data. The only reason for someone to hack your camera would be so they could be creepy.

And don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of creepy people in the world. They do plenty of creepy things. But it’s not likely that someone would go to the trouble to hack your phone or laptop cameras because they wouldn’t get a whole lot of interesting content.

What can you do to protect yourself?

There are stickers you can put on laptop cameras that block the camera unless you choose to use it. They are so cheap you can find them as giveaways at trade shows, or buy them by the dozen at several different shopping sites. This is one elegant solution. If you actually never use your laptop’s camera (and this is quite common) just cover it with electrical tape. It does the same thing.

It’s a little harder with the selfie camera on your phone because chances are you do actually use that. If you’re willing to give up on those functions completely you can cover it, unless it’s used for Face ID or some other scheme like that. Otherwise the best option would be something like a folio case that lets you take calls with the cover closed while hiding the camera. At least you’re covering the camera when you’re not actually using the phone.

Probably the best option right now is just to stay with a name-brand phone and avoid sketchy app stores and weird free apps. Apple and Samsung seem to do a good job of making sure that their phones are free of malware and as long as you stay with the Apple App Store or Google Play Store you’ll usually find that the apps are safe. Apple’s draconian App Store policies have made their devices the most secure for now, although that could change.

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.