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Your Child's Laptop Is Watching Her

Photograph by Getty Images

So this is gross: your computer is watching you. At least, it has the potential to.

As Miss Teen USA found out last year, cameras on our laptops are vulnerable to even rather novice hackers. California teen Cassidy Wolf opened emails containing nude pictures of herself and the request for more nude photos. In exchange, the then-anonymous sender said he would destroy the ones he took in secret. Wolf went to the police, the FBI investigated, and Jared Abrahams, a computer science student and high school classmate of Wolf's, pleaded guilty to extortion.

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We've long since made peace with the fact that we can't buy something online without that purchase data being made available to other marketers. THAT kind of spying is just part of Internet life. But the kind of spying recently uncovered is through your MacBook's camera.

Without warning, it's taking pictures of you or your kids—in clothes or not—and putting them in the hands of hackers.

So how did Wolf and Abrahams's other victims not know they were being recorded? How could he control their laptops? And why didn't they know the camera was rolling? Contrary to conventional wisdom, it's not terribly difficult to do what Abrahams did. He used software called RAT—Remote Administration Tool—which has been used for both good and bad (if you work from home, RAT probably keeps you a little paranoid of your boss).

We're all fairly vulnerable.

Some graduate students at Johns Hopkins University decided to test Abrahams's hack and RAT, and found that it's very possible to turn on a laptop's camera remotely, without the user knowing it's on. Because laptops contain more than one microchip, they just had to circumvent the one meant to control the camera—and programmed with security features such as the green light. Instead, they activated the camera with another of the chips, one without the camera security protocols.

The graduate students tested these hacks on older Mac models—iMac G5 and early Intel-based iMacs, MacBooks, and up to 2008 MacBook Pro—but say there isn't any reason to believe newer models better prevent these types of attacks.

Which brings us to our homes. Obviously, Abrahams had very specific targets in mind in his extortion project. Some celebrities have fallen victim to similar attacks. We're all fairly vulnerable. As your kid becomes more and more independent online, letting them know about this particular security breech should be part of their overall Internet education.

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Also, we can protect ourselves from the spying camera in two simple ways and with no great expense. If you're not using your computer, turn it off—or at least, close the lid. Teach kids to do this as well. Even easier, when you're not Skyping with grandma, press a sticky note over the lens. You may still get spied on, but the most salacious thing the hackers will see is the dull yellow hue of a Post-It.

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