Have you ever noticed that Facebook FB, +1.42% chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden keep tape over their computers’ web cameras?
Snowden, who has sought temporary asylum in Russia since he revealing thousands of classified NSA documents in 2013, made a big deal of covering his laptop’s camera in the documentary film “CitizenFour” so no one could spy on his conversation or see his passwords being inputted, and Zuckerberg reportedly takes similar measures. Does this sound like the paranoia of the hunted and powerful?
3 things about this photo of Zuck:
Camera covered with tape
Mic jack covered with tape
Email client is Thunderbird pic.twitter.com/vdQlF7RjQt
— Chris Olson (@topherolson) June 21, 2016
There may be good reason for that. Google GOOG, +2.77% announced a new in-home smart assistant on Wednesday that is noticeably missing a camera. The company said it removed it to give users peace of mind that they aren’t being watched in their own homes. This comes after Facebook on Monday announced The Portal, a new in-home video-chat device that sparked privacy concerns. A Google spokesman said it was a “conscious decision” that its first smart device not have a camera.
“We wanted people to feel comfortable using Google Home Hub in private spaces, like the bedroom,” he told MarketWatch.
Web cameras are relatively easy to hack, according to a report released in June by information-security firm SEC Consult. Last summer, a woman in South Carolina claimed her baby monitor had been hacked and was being used to spy on her and her child. In 2013, a hacker took over Miss Teen USA’s web camera and extorted her with photos taken from it. Amazon’s AMZN, +4.72% smart doorbell Ring had a security flaw that allowed users to spy on one another.
Google appears to be securing itself against privacy concerns and even potential lawsuits, said Bret Fund, founder and chief executive officer at Denver-based cybersecurity academy SecureSet. “Google is recognizing that — whether or not they would intend the device to be used this way — any device with a camera or audio can be used for spying,” he said. “Omitting the camera is a recognition of this and shows that Google is seeking to balance what they believe are necessary features and functionality with security and privacy of the consumer.”
The rise of smart homes presents ongoing security risks for consumers. Some 147 million homes in Europe and North America will be smart by 2022, according to a September report from analysis firm Berg Insight.
Connected refrigerators can be used to spy on residents, giving hackers insight into when they are home. Other devices like smart light bulbs and smart baby monitors can be hacked and harnessed to use in major attacks. In 2016, a hack that brought down Spotify, Twitter TWTR, +3.69% , Pinterest, Reddit, and Paypal PYPL, +4.69% , was caused by a network of smart cameras whose traffic was hijacked and directed at a hosting service.
The problems associated with hacking home devices are many, but stories of cameras being used to infiltrate people’s homes just creeps users out, said Justin Antonipillai, founder and chief executive officer of global data privacy compliance platform WireWheel. “When you block, or unplug, or turn something off, you should really know that there is a chance it is still recording you, and I would always recommend that people have a tape or other physical blocker as an option — if only to just sleep a little better,” he said.
A “physical blocker” can be electrical tape, a Post-It note, or a sticker. Any opaque material works, but there are also a number of novelty stickers sold online to cover everything from computer cameras to iPad and iPhone devices.
Of course, Google not including a camera in its home device does not mean the company should be considered a privacy advocate, said James Slaby, director of cyber protection for cyber security platform Acronis, said. Much of the profits at Google, which earned $6.72 billion in its second quarter, according to a July SEC filing, comes from harvesting and selling user data, he noted.
“It bears repeating: you are not these companies’ primary customers: you are their product,” he said. “It’s possible that Google has omitted a camera on its new home hub to alleviate consumer privacy concerns, but that’s kind of a joke given its business model.”
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