Researchers describe how to cause older Apple computers to video record without turning on LED light

Dec 19, 2013 by Bob Yirka report
The iSight from a 2008 MacBook that was studied.

(Phys.org) —Two researchers at Johns Hopkins University have posted a research paper outlining a way to remotely control a computer webcam (on MacBook and iMac computers) without causing the in-use light to go on. In their paper, Matthew Brocker and Stephen Checkoway also note that they have learned that the FBI has known how to accomplish the same feat for several years.

Relying on an LED to glow to let people know that their camera is operating has been a standard feature on computers from the first days of webcams—people want to know if they are recording or being recorded. Unfortunately, so too have Remote Administration Tools (RATs)—software installed on computers that allows someone to remotely control the computer or its accessories across the Internet.

More recently, the question of whether someone could remotely control a without causing the LED to glow came to the fore as a high school student (and Miss Teen USA) became the victim of an extortion scam. A fellow student had managed to install a RAT on her computer—one that might have allowed for video capture without turning on the LED—and then sent an email threatening to post nude pictures of her on the Internet. The culprit was caught, but the question of whether the RAT truly did disable the LED light (as opposed to the victim simply not noticing when it came on), remained. Now, the researchers at Johns Hopkins show that it is indeed possible to do such a thing, and it's not nearly as hard as one would think.

The computers described in the paper are from Apple (circa 2008 or older) a company which apparently went to great lengths to make sure that people couldn't invisibly hijack other's webcams, by hardwiring the LED and camera together. Unfortunately, both are still controllable via programming—that's what the researchers found. More specifically, they discovered they could come between the camera and the LED, causing the line running to the LED to remain high, regardless of what the camera was doing, in effect, disabling it.

For many, news of such a feat won't come as much of a shock—most likely assume their computer, phone or tablet can be hijacked if someone else with the right skills wants to make it happen badly enough—and do as others have suggested, namely tape over the when not using it.

Explore further: Seoul, Toyko pledge to work with US to combat cyber crime

Related Stories

Guilty plea in Miss Teen USA extortion case

Nov 12, 2013

A 19-year-old computer science student pleaded guilty Tuesday to hacking the computers of Miss Teen USA and other women and secretly photographing them with their own webcams.

Samsung unveils voice-controlled camera

Aug 29, 2012

(AP)—Samsung has unveiled a voice-controlled camera as part of a fall lineup of consumer gadgets aimed at setting itself apart from rival Apple.

Solving a moving problem

Dec 11, 2013

Victoria University graduand Ben Drayton has come up with a way to help solve the problem of measuring distance to a moving object.

Intel readying to take on Kinect with 3D depth cameras

Aug 28, 2013

(Phys.org) —Anil Nanduri, director of perceptual products and solutions at Intel has revealed to IDG News that the company is hard at work developing camera systems that will not only replicate what users ha ...

Recommended for you

Impoverished North Korea falls back on cyber weapons

18 hours ago

As one of the world's most impoverished powers, North Korea would struggle to match America's military or economic might, but appears to have settled on a relatively cheap method to torment its foe.

Five ways to make your email safer in case of a hack attack

18 hours ago

The Sony hack, the latest in a wave of company security breaches, exposed months of employee emails. Other hacks have given attackers access to sensitive information about a company and its customers, such as credit-card ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Eikka
not rated yet Dec 19, 2013
causing the line running to the LED to remain high, regardless of what the camera was doing, in effect, disabling it.


If I'm getting that right, it means the LED is always on regardless of the camera. In electrical engineering, having a line "high" usually means it's at logical 1 and unless they're using unconventional logic, that means the power is on.

Which would be a giveaway that someone's broken into your system. So, PSA: if your computer's webcam light is always on, put a piece of tape on the camera and look for malware.

and do as others have suggested, namely tape over the camera when not using it.


What about the microphones though?
tadchem
not rated yet Dec 19, 2013
My laptop has a piece of a sticky note over the camera lens. On it I have written "Cyclopean Eyepatch".

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.