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The microphone is trickier, since you can't tape it up.
The practice dates back to 1998, when a group of hackers calling itself the Cult of the Dead Cow designed a piece of software that, when downloaded onto a computer, let someone control the machine remotely.The authors "were not malicious guys," says Frank Heidt, CEO of Leviathan Security."They thought it was funny as hell." Webcam scams do occur, though they're far less common than other types of online extortion.One could see this being useful for private investigators, though PIs I spoke with say they don't know of anyone hacking into webcams as part of their work."The technology is there for it to happen," says Charles Mc Laughlin, a PI in Andover, Mass.The problem is when we don't even know the portal exists, or are only dimly aware of it.
There's a general rule that you shouldn't write anything in an e-mail that you wouldn't want shared with the world.
If you want to be cautious, the best solution is the simplest: Put a piece of tape over the camera.
It may be the laptop equivalent of the tinfoil hat, but it's the only way to absolutely guarantee privacy.
Or you can just take a college course on how to do it. You can't buy an Apple laptop these days without a built-in camera. Sometimes they're practically invisible: The Mac Book Air's built-in camera is "so smartly integrated, you hardly notice it's there," brags Apple.
That said, almost all laptops have a light that turns on whenever the camera is on—a feature that hackers can't disable since it's controlled electronically, not programmatically. Most scammers are interested in money, and video of someone's slack-jawed mug isn't going to yield much cash.
Anything you could do sitting at your desk, they could do thousands of miles away, from creating documents to playing MP3s to popping open the disk drive.