Is Your Smart Device’s Camera Spying on You?

By Kehl Bayern / October 24, 2017

The proliferation of smart devices with built-in cameras has given rise to a very modern, though also very appropriately retro-dystopian, fear that these products from Apple and Google, among others, could be spying on us, watching us in our every moment for reasons and motives unknown.

You may recall the classic line about paranoia from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Welcome to a modern tech horror story.

For one Dutch woman, Rilana Hamer, it began when her web-connected camera began to talk to her that she knew something was wrong.

According to Peta Pixel, Rilana purchased her web-connected device at a discount store called Action so that she could monitor her puppy while she was away from the house.

“You connect it to your Wi-Fi and plug it into your power outlet. With a password and secure installation, I could keep an eye on my house,” Rilana told Dutch media outlet RTL.

It was shortly after purchase that she began to witness and hear strange things from the camera.

Image via NegativeSpace.co via Pexels.com.

In a Facebook post in which she recounts her nightmare ordeal with discount tech, Rilana writes: “I thought I was going crazy. I walked into the living room and I saw my camera move. The camera went back and forth. My phone was on the bed and I had no idea what the camera was doing. Was it updating?”

Facebook video of webcam from Rilana Hamer.

She started to record her camera’s strange behavior with her iPhone as the camera searched the room for her, calling out in French to get her attention.

Rilana tried unplugging the device and then plugging it back in (a classic move), only this time a new voice spoke to her in Spanish.

After having enough terror from her dime-store version of Hal3000, Rilana returned the camera to Action which is conducting an investigation according to Peta Pixel. The store says this is their first such complaint about the device which is almost sold out as of press.

Petal Pixel advises users to change the default password on any web-connected device they purchase.

Although that may be helpful, the issue's exposure in the press could lead to the discovery of a deeper flaw in the camera’s software that is allowing hackers to take control of the device.

Last October 2016 the Internet experienced a major outage across many large services that was eventually tied to a coordinated DDOS attack that utilized hacked web-connected cameras featuring components from Chinese electronics component manufacturer Hangzhou Xiongmai Technology (Xiongmai) according to DIY Photography.

Xiongmai is a major producer of internet-connected devices such as cameras and DVRs. The exploitation of webcam devices for such a massive attack served as a wake-up call for security experts around the globe that had previously considered the devices such as webcams relatively harmless.

Readers may also recall the Amazon Alexa-powered line of devices that made headlines when Alexa-recorded information was summoned in a court case that was a judicial litmus test for privacy concerns when it comes to web-connected devices and smart devices such as Amazon’s Echo that wait for audible commands, in theory, before registering or recording information. Amazon Echo Show, an Alexa-powered, web-connected vidscreen device will only further the concerns already established with the audio-only version.

Amazon vociferously defended its clients’ right to privacy in that court case, a murder trial in which the defense argued the prosecution was overreaching in its attempt to get information from the suspect’s Amazon device. Eventually the suspect changed counsel and, upon the urging of new counsel, released the recordings which Amazon made available shortly after according to CNN.

In a more heartening story, there was a July 2017 incident in which a web-connected smart device called New Mexico police upon hearing the phrase “did you call the sheriffs?” as it was said by Eduardo Barros while he threatened his girlfriend with a gun. The device called 911 and authorities listened in on the altercation, dispatching a team to deal with the situation before it got worse.

Manuel Gonzales, a county sheriff, credited the smart device with potentially saving a life. Engadget never identified the heroic device but it was initially reported as a Google Home.

About the author

Kehl Bayern

Kehl Bayern is a freelance writer and editor of Demagaga.


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