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Monday, February 09, 2009

Random Thoughts: Are you being watched?

It started as a great idea at the Lower Merion School District, outside Philadelphia, when school officials decided to loan laptop computers to students to encourage them to embrace newer technologies and to study better. However, the situation came to a dramatic turn when a suit was filed against the school district for spying students at students' homes through the web cam built into the laptop and a software that allowed the school officials to activate the camera remotely in order to view and take pictures of the students.

The interesting part was that a student named Blake Robbins was accused of selling drugs and taking pills by school officials (Blake claimed that he was eating candies), and the school official actually provided proof -- images of Blake eating things at home taken secretly through the web cam -- to back up their claim! The image on the left shows Blake's family and their lawyer appearing on "Early Show Saturday Edition" discussing the entire fiasco (photo credit CBS).

I am simply AMAZED at the intellectual capabilities of the school officials involved here!! The issue here is not whether the kid took pills or not. The issue is about a crude invasion of personal privacy at people's own homes without their knowledge and consent. A federal judge quickly ordered the school district to stop activating the cameras, and the school complied. The FBI has also opened a criminal investigation of the web cam use to see if the school district broke any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws.

Disturbing as the story is, what I want to emphasize here, though, is slightly different. Many people use web cams to do video conferences with friends and family. Some still use the old external web cams connected through USB ports (I am one of them). However, most people use the laptop built-in web cams these days because of the convenience and also because most laptops come with built-in web cams. So do you really know if you are being watched?

People these days take their laptops with them everywhere they go, including very private places such as their bedrooms and bathrooms. Many companies would also give their employees laptops so they can work from home or while they go on trips. Many large organizations DO put remote access software on company laptops for the ease of IT support, and I personally have used such software when I worked as an IT support staff in the past. The truth is, IT support staff can remotely watch your monitor screen when you have no idea they are doing so. And if the computer has a web cam, activating the web cam through such management tools is a piece of cake.

Also, many home computers are hacked and made into "zombie" computers for spamming or Denial Of Service attacks in large botnets controlled by hackers. These hackers can also easily control the web cams connected to these infected computers and the users would have no clue about such activities! If you think you are safe behind security firewalls you purchased from McAfee of Symantec, you'd better think twice.

So what lesson should we learn from this? That is, we should never naively believe that we have total control of web cams connected to our computers. The safest thing to do is to cover it up with tape of a piece of paper when we are not actively using it, because you never know who might be watching through the web cam. Especially for people have built-in web cams, it is so easy to forget about that special "eye" in the room, and it might be watching you actively at this very moment!

The commercial in the YouTube video below might seem funny, but it wouldn't be so funny if you weren't in a video conference yet someone is secretly watching you behind the web cam device. I think all built-in web cams should have a cover, so people only open it when they actively use it and can always close the cover when they are not.

This also poses an interesting question about future robots in people's homes. These robots will probably also have eyes, and eyelids will probably have to be mandatory so they don't peep on you when you don't want them to.

Video of the Day:

Sony laptop with built-in web cam ad!