Can your phone camera spy on you without your knowledge? Seems far-fetched, but it is absolutely possible—here’s what you need to know about getting snapped without permission.
Am I paranoid—or is my phone spying on me?
This has probably happened to you. You’re with a group of friends, and someone’s talking about a recent, online purchase that’s just changed their life. Scrolling through your social feeds later, you find yourself targeted with ads touting that product or something similar. It’s understandable to think, then: Is my phone spying on me?
In 2016, Mark Zuckerberg was famously revealed to keep his laptop camera covered, which is now mainstream practice. But what about phone cameras, which are mini-computers, after all?
The fact is, hacking a camera isn’t that hard. But perhaps more importantly, you could be giving away more of your information to companies through your camera and microphone than you’d like.
Read more: What does Big Tech know about you? Find out
How can your phone camera be hacked?
It’s easier than we’d like to believe. In 2014, a university student claimed he created an Android app capable of taking photos and recording video even when the device’s screen was turned off. His app worked by using a tiny, 1×1 pixel preview screen to keep the camera running in the background. Preview screens are characterized as a security feature by Google—the camera won’t operate unless a preview is being displayed—but all the student had to do was reduce the size down to nearly invisible, and he had no problem taking hidden photos.
Apple products aren’t immune to this problem, either; there is software that allows malicious actors to turn off Apple iSight webcam warning lights.
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It’s also worth mentioning that there are also legitimate apps for iPhones that allow you to make it seem as though your camera isn’t recording. Instead, the screen can be entirely black or it can be made to appear that you’re just browsing a website and not taking a video.
And while this might sound like fun and games if you’re the one in control—it’s your phone, after all—think about the implications of these apps as malware. What if you accidentally downloaded one and it was enabled remotely, or if a piece of malicious code took control of your camera app? You could be spying on yourself and not even know it.
Signs that your phone camera has been hacked
Here are a few indications that someone is operating your phone camera remotely, in order of suspiciousness:
- Photos and videos appear in your albums that you don’t remember taking
- The camera flash turns on even when you aren’t using your phone
- There is a lot of lag when using your camera
- Your battery is draining a lot faster than before
App permissions are a greater risk factor
Of course, one-time malicious actors aren’t alone when it comes to harnessing your camera for their own purposes. Back in 2014, there was an uproar over the Terms of Service for Facebook’s Messenger App, which included permission to take pictures and videos with your device camera without your consent.
And in 2018, while Zuckerberg gave congressional testimony stating that the Facebook app does not listen to private conversations through phone microphones, he also clarified that the company has access to the audio when people record videos on their devices for Facebook.
A study that looked at the frequency at which iOS apps sought various permissions showed that 55% of iOS apps requested camera access—second only to requests for access to users’ photo libraries. Often, the requests help users take and upload profile pictures but are not otherwise needed, and yet users don’t remove the permission afterward.
Should you cover your phone camera and microphone?
It’s possible that someone has hacked your phone camera. That said, it is much more likely that an app on your device has permission to access it without you realizing. The question is whether the app maker uses this permission and the data it receives in an ethical manner. Of course, whenever possible, don’t give apps such permissions.
Either way, there is no downside to covering your phone camera lens, except the inconvenience of removing the cover whenever you want to take a picture or video. For your privacy’s sake, go for it. As for microphones, you can cover it with tape, too, but it’s even more of a hassle if you use your phone for calls.