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In a paper called “i See You: Disabling the Mac Book Webcam Indicator LED,” Brocker and Checkoway describe how to reprogram the i Sight camera’s micro-controller to allow the camera and light to be activated independently.
That allows the camera to be turned on while the light stays off.
One laptop, many chips The built-in cameras on Apple computers were designed to prevent this, says Stephen Checkoway, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins and a co-author of the study.
“Apple went to some amount of effort to make sure that the LED would turn on whenever the camera was taking images,” Checkoway says.
While the research focused on Mac Book and i Mac models released before 2008, the authors say similar techniques could work on more recent computers from a wide variety of vendors.
In other words, if a laptop has a built-in camera, it’s possible someone — whether the federal government or a malicious 19 year old — could access it to spy on the user at any time.
According to the researchers, the vulnerability they discovered affects “Apple internal i Sight webcams found in earlier-generation Apple products, including the i Mac G5 and early Intel-based i Macs, Mac Books, and Mac Book Pros until roughly 2008.” While the attack outlined in the paper is limited to these devices, researchers like Charlie Miller suggest that the attack could be applicable to newer systems as well.
As a result, she had no idea she was under surveillance. While controlling a camera remotely has long been a source of concern to privacy advocates, conventional wisdom said there was at least no way to deactivate the warning light. Marcus Thomas, former assistant director of the FBI’s Operational Technology Division in Quantico, said in a recent story in The Washington Post that the FBI has been able to covertly activate a computer’s camera — without triggering the light that lets users know it is recording — for several years.
Now research from Johns Hopkins University provides the first public confirmation that it’s possible to do just that, and demonstrates how.
Most laptops with built-in cameras have an important privacy feature — a light that is supposed to turn on any time the camera is in use.
But Wolf says she never saw the light on her laptop go on.The 2008-era Apple products they studied had a “hardware interlock” between the camera and the light to ensure that the camera couldn’t turn on without alerting its owner.