Who is looking through your webcam?

The woman was shocked when she received two nude photos of herself by email. The photos had been taken over a period of several months – without her knowledge – by the built-in camera on her laptop.

Fortunately, the FBI was able to identify a suspect: her high school classmate, a man named Jared Abrahams. The FBI says it found software on Abrahams’s computer that allowed him to spy remotely on her and numerous other women.

Abrahams pleaded guilty to extortion in October. The woman, identified in court papers only as C.W., later identified herself on Twitter as Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf. While her case was instant fodder for celebrity gossip sites, it left a serious issue unresolved:

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 said she never saw the light on her laptop. As a result, she had no idea she was under surveillance.

That wasn’t supposed to be possible. While controlling a laptop camera remotely has long been a source of concern to privacy advocates, conventional wisdom said there was no way to deactivate the warning light.

But evidence is mounting that this creepiest of intrusions is real.

There have been warnings. Marcus Thomas, former assistant director of the FBI’s Operational Technology Division in Quantico, Va., 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 – 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. While the research focused on MacBook and iMac models released before 2008, the authors say similar techniques would probably 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, and the user would never know.

The iSight camera was designed to prevent this, said 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 said. 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.

But Checkoway and his co-author, Johns Hopkins University graduate student Matthew Brocker, were able to get around this security feature. That’s because a modern laptop is actually several different computers in one package. “There’s more than one chip on your computer,” said Charlie Miller, a security expert at Twitter. “There’s a chip in the battery, a chip in the keyboard, a chip in the camera.”

MacBooks are designed to prevent software running on the MacBook’s central processing unit (CPU) from activating the iSight camera without turning on the light. But researchers figured out how to reprogram the chip inside the camera, known as a micro-controller, to defeat this feature.

In a paper called “iSeeYou: Disabling the MacBook Webcam Indicator LED,” Brocker and Checkoway describe how to reprogram the iSight camera’s micro-controller to allow the camera to be turned on while the light stays off. Their research is under consideration for an upcoming academic security conference.

Attacks that exploit microcontrollers are becoming more common. “People are starting to think about what happens when you can reprogram each of those,” Miller said. For example, he demonstrated an attack last year on the software that controls Apple batteries, which causes the battery to discharge rapidly, potentially leading to a fire or explosion. Another researcher was able to convert the built-in Apple keyboard into spyware using a similar method.

According to the researchers, the vulnerability they discovered affects “Apple internal iSight webcams found in earlier-generation Apple products, including the iMac G5 and early Intel-based iMacs, MacBooks, and MacBook Pros until roughly 2008.” While the attack outlined in the paper is limited to those devices, researchers like Charlie Miller suggest that the attack could be applicable to newer systems as well.

“There’s no reason you can’t do it – it’s just a lot of work and resources, but it depends on how well ⅛Apple€ secured the hardware,” Miller said.

Apple did not reply to requests for comment for this article. Brocker and Checkoway write in their report that they contacted the company on July 16. “Apple employees followed up several times but did not inform us of any possible mitigation plans,” the researchers wrote.

The software used by Abrahams in the Wolf case is known as a Remote Administration Tool, or RAT. This software, which allows someone to control a computer from across the Internet, has legitimate uses. For example, it can make it easier for a school’s IT staff to administer a classroom full of computers.

Indeed, the devices the researchers studied were similar to MacBooks involved in a notorious case in Pennsylvania in 2008. Administrators at Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia reportedly captured 56,000 images of students using the RAT installed on school-issued laptops. Students reported seeing a “creepy” green flicker that indicated that the camera was in use. That eventually led to a lawsuit.

But more sophisticated remote monitoring tools may already be able to suppress the warning light, said Morgan Marquis-Boire, a security researcher at the University of Toronto.

He points to commercial surveillance products such as Hacking Team and FinFisher that are marketed for use by governments. FinFisher is a suite of tools sold by a European firm called the Gamma Group. A company marketing document released by Wikileaks indicated that Finfisher could be “covertly deployed on the Target Systems” and enable, among other things, “Live Surveillance through Webcam and Microphone.”

The Chinese government has also been accused of using RATs for surveillance purposes. A 2009 report from the University of Toronto described a surveillance program called Ghostnet that the Chinese government allegedly used to spy on prominent Tibetans, including the Dalai Llama. The authors reported that “web cameras are being silently triggered, and audio inputs surreptitiously activated,” though it’s not clear whether the Ghostnet software is capable of disabling camera warning lights.

But there is an easy way for users to protect themselves. “The safest thing to do is to put a piece of tape on your camera,” Miller said.

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