Don’t worry, Mark Zuckerberg: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. And as the richest millennial in the world, you can probably be confident that someone, somewhere, is after you.
Which is why it makes perfect sense that you’ve joined the growing number of people doing a little DIY hardware hacking, and disabling their computer’s webcam and microphone. Even if a sneaky hacker does manage to penetrate your security, they’re not going to be seeing you in your tighty whities.
Yes folks, Zuckerberg tapes over his webcam. The billionaire made the (accidental?) revelation in a Facebook post intended to promote Instagram reaching its latest milestone of half a billion monthly active users. In the picture Zuckerberg posted, of himself framed by a cardboard Instagram UI (cute), his laptop is visible in the background. And as Christopher Olson pointed out, that laptop has some weird accoutrements:
3 things about this photo of Zuck: Camera covered with tape, Mic jack covered with tape, Email client is Thunderbird. (And yes, that really does seem to be his laptop. William Turton notes that it’s the same desk the Face-boss gave a tour of on Facebook Live back in September.) Thunderbird is an email client, for what it’s worth, which is made by Firefox creators Mozilla. Unlike Firefox, though, it’s never really taken off in the wider world, and development has rather stalled in the past five years. It may not even be Thunderbird that Zuckerberg has installed – others think it’s a Cisco VPN client.
Taping over the sensors and a particularly geeky mail client might seem paranoid. But to be fair to Zuckerberg, he’s not the only one taking a look at his webcam and wondering if it’s worth the risk. Take the FBI’s director, James Comey: “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.” The American digital rights group EFF sells webcam stickers, and told Danny Yadron “people purchase these regularly”.
Even experts who don’t cover their cameras think they should. Why doesn’t Matthew Green, an encryption expert at Johns Hopkins University? “Because I’m an idiot,” he told Yadron. “I have no excuse for not taking this seriously … but at the end of the day, I figure that seeing me naked would be punishment enough.”
While Zuckerberg probably does have any number of advanced persistent threats trying to break his digital security, normal people shouldn’t be too complacent either. Installing backdoors on compromised computers is a common way for some hackers to occupy their time. Why is everyone covering up their laptop cameras?
According to a 2013 report in tech news, sites such as Hack Forums contain threads full of people comparing and trading images of “slaves”, people whose computers they have broken into and taken control of. “One woman targeted by the California ‘sextortionist’ Luis Mijangos wouldn’t leave her dorm room for a week after Mijangos turned her laptop into a sophisticated bugging device,” Nate Anderson wrote. “Mijangos began taunting her with information gleaned from offline conversations.”
Mac users, like Zuckerberg, can rest a bit easier: unlike most Windows laptops, the light next to a Mac’s webcam is controlled deeply in the hardware, and so it’s very hard to turn the webcam on without also turning on the warning light. Hard, but not impossible.
So should you copy Zuckerberg? Probably. It doesn’t hurt, most of the experts do it, and it could minimise damage – even if it’s just emotional – in the case of a catastrophic hack. But maybe don’t use Thunderbird. Some things are just too much hassle.