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Chris Stephens (Vice President - Operations)

Webcams and Privacy

Written on July 1, 2013 by Chris Stephens
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Hello there. It's nice to see you again.

 

You are staring at the screen, right now, reading this ultra interesting blog post.

Did you know that someone could be staring back?

There is no doubt that more and more of our customers are turning to laptops for their computing needs. Many people take issue with the integrated webcam and microphone that is on nearly every commercially produced laptop.  We get several requests a month to physically remove the cameras and microphones from our laptop orders.

Why remove the webcam and microphone?

Well, let me give you the worst case scenario: strangers can access the feed from your camera and microphone, even turning them on when you are not aware.  This practice, called 'ratting', is well documented on places like YouTube where videos are posted of people being secretly recorded on their own computer. These videos are frequently banned by YouTube as a violation of their Terms of Service, but they are posted with such frequency that finding a 'ratting' video is a pretty simple search.


Some may scoff and point out that access like this requires the user to grant root or administrator access to the program 'ratters' use. But Trojan infections of computers of all types are very frequent. In fact I recently had to clear out a root kit on a family member's computer that was installed via a trojan, which anti-viruses have an easier time detecting AFTER install.

We can be as cautious as possible but remember this:

We have to be right EVERY time but the hacker/cracker/virus/trojan has to be right only ONCE.

How do I remove the webcam? Well there are a number of techniques out there for mitigating the risk of webcams and microphones. Can I steer you clear of one popularly proposed solution?

Do not take a drill motor and drill out the webcam from the bezel. That is a horrible idea.

Not recommeded for use with your next Puget System.

A better idea? Buy your next laptop from Puget Systems. We can do a complete microphone and webcam removal, done the right way, by our experienced technicians. I have posted some links on the right side of this article to our most popular line of laptops. Check them out, save a quote and let our Puget sales staff help you make a great choice for your next computer.

 

Tags: webcam, microphone, removal, laptop
egybs

What about having a hard switch to turn them on/off?

Posted on 2013-07-01 18:23:29
Stephens_Chris

That could work, if you are diligent enough.

Posted on 2013-07-01 19:31:29
Saiboogu

Not at all a fan of the "fear sells" mentality, but playing along since you guys seem to be otherwise fairly cool cats -- I'd be much more impressed if you offered a physical switch, like egybs suggested. Little dremel work, under a buck in parts most likely - should be a cake job and offer security and convenience.

Posted on 2013-07-02 03:17:41

The main reason we added these removal options was because of government customer requests. Apparently, for some sectors of government work they cannot have devices with functioning cameras or microphones - and so a switch to enable / disable them wouldn't work there. I agree that would be a nice touch for more traditional consumers, though.

Posted on 2013-07-02 15:47:07
Saiboogu

That makes sense - I've heard of those restrictions before, and it's good that you can help them.

Posted on 2013-07-02 16:09:25
billdcat4x

uninstall the webcam/mic driver or place a piece of tape over the webcam

Posted on 2013-07-02 14:03:07
bdot

Removing the camera would take away the occasional fun we get to have at work though. Every now and then, one of the big wigs wants a huge number of people with the company to join a stupid online meeting so we can "listen" to their speech about the company. Sure enough, as we sign on, someone somewhere has a webcam on their computer that they don't know about. The cool thing is that the meeting will automatically put up their webcam presence if it detects you have one on. The "meetings" would be so boring if it weren't for the accidental appearance of for example a guy sitting at home without a shirt who is picking his nose while not having any idea the rest of the company is watching him.

Posted on 2013-08-02 14:58:54

well done.

Posted on 2013-09-03 09:09:40
Scam Hunter

I like the idea, and might bring my macbook to you. For now silver paint has fixed the camera and microphone issues. There is no video, and the microphone can only pick up muffled sound at best.

Posted on 2015-08-17 10:34:22
Namae

I think they can only remove the webcams for their own laptop chassis, not for any generic laptop. Puget Systems isn't a webcam removal service, but a company which sells computers and simply offers the option to remove the webcam and microphone from their own systems before shipping them out. I would suggest a different company if you wanted any generic laptop to have the webcam removed, but considering it's a macbook, it wouldn't be that easy anyway, so you're kind of out of luck. Just buy a laptop from Puget Systems. They're a pretty neat company.anyway. Much better than Apple.

Posted on 2016-06-02 03:34:18
Scam Hunter

I finally disconnected the cables from the motherboard. Now the camera no longer appears in the device list. The microphones are disconnected.

Any potential security risk is no longer, and little effort was required. Furthermore I lost nothing because I do not have a need for a webcam or microphone. I deleted most of the built in apps, so I have no apps that make use of the camera or microphone.

I did not bother physically removing the camera or the microphones because doing so requires extra effort, and nothing is gained.

Posted on 2016-06-02 10:11:22
Namae

I would love to see more security-related features coming to Puget Systems computers, such as better chassis intrusion detection (especially for the servers and workstations), or the option to ship computers with tamper-evident seals or tape, now that everyone is aware how big of a problem it is that computers can get secretly interdicted and modified en route to their destination. Custom seals and tape can even have the Puget Systems logo, as well as custom micro-perforations throughout the length of the material, which is common in tamper-evident seals and tapes. That would help increase the assurance that whatever arrives is exactly what was sent out.

Having a workstation or server which has been vetted for sufficient hardware security would also be cool, like memory confirmed to be not vulnerable or less vulnerable to rowhammer (and yes even DDR4 is often vulnerable, as TRR is not mandatory in the standard, IIRC), drives which support SED, motherboards which do not have ITP-XDP3 JTAG ports sticking out, CPUs who's current microcode versions does not have any known security-related errata, BIOS pre-configured to expose the minimum attack surface area, etc. Nothing quite up to TEMPEST emission standards, but just something which is confirmed to increase physical security. Now something like that would be freaking awesome.

The former is of course much more realistic, due to requiring only buying some tamper-evident seals or tape, whereas the latter requires hiring experts in hardware security, so it is more of my own wishful thinking. But I do genuinely hope the former has a chance of being implemented. It would be cheap and easy to do, and would inspire confidence in many customers, especially in this post-Snowden era.

Posted on 2016-06-02 03:54:40
Michael Kiser

my child has a touch screen toshiba laptop. i want to know if i can take a dremel tool and scar up the screen and blurr the camera. i have uninstalled the camrea before only to have him re install it with updates. i have problems with cam sights that he is getting on and people seeing him. will a dremel ruin the whole computer if i blurr out the tiny space in front of the cam?

Posted on 2017-02-02 18:37:31