Is your Mac spying on you?

If you have a fear of government surveillance, then you should cover the iSight webcam on your Mac. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have proven that a clever hacker, or government agency, can secretly record video from someone's computer.

Spying with the Mac

What the researchers did was turn on the camera of a MacBook and iMac without triggering the LED light that is suppose to let people know that the webcam is on.

The researchers took advantage of a chink in Apple design. Mac security is centered on preventing malicious code from running on the computer's main processor, the CPU. For hackers knowledgeable in firmware, that opens the possibility of reprogramming specialty processors used to control components, such as the battery, keyboard and camera.

The university researchers used a homegrown remote access tool (RAT) to demonstrate how to easily invade a Mac owner's privacy.

A RAT enables someone to control another person's computer remotely. While the software is useful for engineers to fix systems in another town, RATs are also a favorite among hackers. The researchers named their application iSeeYou.

The Washington Post has shared a video of the scientists' work.

Only MacBooks and iMacs released by 2008 were used in the research. However, experts say there's no reason why the same technique can't be used on newer Macs and other computers.

The researchers turned over the source code of iSeeYou to Apple, which followed up several times to discuss their work. There's been no word on whether the company will make any changes.

Paranoia? Really?

For people quick to pooh-pooh the privacy implications, I point to a Post article in which a former FBI official says the agency has been able to hijack webcams in computers for several years.

There's also the 'sextortion' case in which 19-year-old Jared James Abrahams of Temecula, Calif., was accused of taking nude photos of Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf and at least seven other woman by hacking into their computers. Abrahams pleaded guilty to extortion and computer hacking.

So it's certainly reasonable to have a little paranoia when working in front a computer's webcam. It's also reasonable to expect Apple and other computer makers to find a fix for the problem.  

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