Think no one is watching? What’s that Post-it on your laptop?
“What’s that?” I asked, with a probably obvious edge of girl-on-girl judgment in my voice, and pointed to a distracting flaw in a photo of my boyfriend’s sister.
He – older, amiable, a nerd – had built an app. And in a message he’d just pulled up on his laptop, his sorority-president sister was agreeing to market it to her friends.
But all I could focus on was her picture… a dime-sized image with her laptop open in the background. And stuck over the top of her laptop screen was an electric pink rectangle that, to my eye, did not belong.
(Persnickety as this sounds, the line and color of an open MacBook are so central to the landscape of modern student life that the least aberration jars the senses.)
He, an NSA coder after college, said it was a Band-Aid – and apparently one from the neon line. It was the latest craze, he told me, covering your computer’s built-in webcam to shut out the hackers who might otherwise watch you working, online shopping, or moving idly around your room.
These hackers, he said, could disable the green light that usually comes on when the camera is “live.” You’d never know if someone was watching.
They might have been watching us then, in fact, because his webcam wasn’t covered. He said he wasn’t worried – women are likelier targets, for one thing. The digital voyeur pays many times more for stolen shots of women than men (unless they’re men worth blackmailing). Plus, if he were going to be hacked, he insinuated his hard drive had more valuable cargo than footage of the two of us innocently alone together.
At least the webcam spies knew my value.
But suddenly I had license to believe there could be thousands of watchers whenever I was in front of my open laptop – which was most of the time – more time than I’m visible through my actual windows.
For a woman, participating in the webcam privacy panic requires a self-conscious spark: I, too, am a profitable target.
To my knowledge, I’d never had a true stalker follow me home and watch me through my lighted windows. But suddenly I had license to believe there could be thousands of watchers whenever I was in front of my open laptop – which was most of the time – more time than I’m visible through my actual windows. And these webcam hackers had all their paying customers too…
I imagined them peering into my private moments from deep within a Bond-villain base of operations, buried in a cave network in the foothills of some Central Asian mountain chain. Screen after screen of little windows stacked Brady-Bunch-style, each opening into another flickering world full of mundane secrets like mine. Someone could be trading bitcoin for a livestream of me, studying.
The best I had on hand that day was a hot pink mini Post-it note, sized to flag a few lines of reading, and colored to catch the eye. My roommate needed one too, I told her – and so did everyone else who asked what’s that covering our webcams.
The adhesive on the Post-it lasted longer than the boyfriend.
And in the world beyond, the tech-privacy panic has ballooned. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – whose messaging app reportedly records users’ conversations to better target ads – has tape over his own webcam and headphone jack, as we learned from a photo he posted in 2016.
That was after FBI director Jim Comey admitted to covering his own laptop camera, back when he was still the country’s top counterspy. In 2013, federal investigators hacked webcams to track a suspected terrorist in Texas and media coverage of the Bureau’s methods of creeping – they call them “network investigative techniques” – probably popularized webcam paranoia more than it deterred crime.
Like trend-obedient college girls, terrorists worthy of the title will have been covering their cameras for years now. Everyone’s doing it these days. The conspicuous shields we wore on our webcams in school shouted what’s become a commonplace conviction.
But now that we all know they’re there, I think we can admit the webcam watchers have their subtle charms, too.
A crude state of nature takes hold when a person thinks no one’s watching… Work-from-home types might consider un-taping their cameras. Welcome the webcam hacker, as a reminder to put on a clean shirt, lay off the nose-picking, and think twice before kicking the cat.
For me, it’s the only lasting association from a dalliance that feels longer ago than it was. Fluorescent pink will always remind me of this secondhand surveillance-conscious self-confidence, a mix of appropriate paranoia and perverse pride that says: I’m worth spying on – and I know it!
The laptop I’m typing on now has its webcam sealed with an adult-professional version of the same. It’s a slim, black, plastic stick-on contraption that opens and closes as needed. The woman to my right at a DuPont coffee shop has the homemade version – Scotch Tape and a scrap of paper. The man on my left side has none.
But it’s different for men. They’re still less likely to be webcam-hacked for the benefit of voyeurs, and therefore less vulnerable – except, of course, to blackmail. For a man to cover his camera sends the unseemly message that he’s a profitable target for a reason he’d rather you not know, some secret proclivity he might pay to keep hidden. To save him the embarrassment, Hewlett Packard’s latest laptop comes with a sliding webcam cover built in.
Alice Lloyd is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.