Alarming Study Shows How Your Mac’s Camera Can Secretly Spy On You

macd15jan2008

Image credit: The Guardian

When your Mac’s iSight camera is running, a tiny green light lets you know that it’s turned on. Or at least it’s supposed to. New research from Johns Hopkins University shows how hackers can remotely control the iSight camera in certain Macs without turning on the accompanying LED indicator light.

Apple designed the iSight camera and green light to turn on and off simultaneously as not only a helpful indicator for the user, but a privacy feature. A young man recently pleaded guilty in court to extortion after he performed a remote hack on Miss Teen USA’s webcam to secretly collect nude photos. She had no idea she was hacked as it was happening because her green light never came on.

"iSeeYou" in action

“iSeeYou” in action

“We describe how to disable the LED on a class of Apple internal iSight webcams used in some versions of MacBook laptops and iMac desktops,” reads the study’s description. “This enables video to be captured without any visual indication to the user and can be accomplished entirely in user space by an unprivileged (non- root) application.”

Two students from Johns Hopkins created a proof-of-concept app called “iSeeYou” to show how the process works. You can read the full report, which includes steps to replicate the hack, by viewing this linked PDF.

To commandeer iSight, the two researchers were able to reprogram the camera’s micro-controller, a dedicated chip that basically acts as the hardware’s own CPU. From there, the camera was told to turn on separately from the light.

The software used to remotely control iSight was Remote Administration Tool (RAT), which is used by IT departments and educational institutions to administer large numbers of computers. The Wikipedia page for RAT details all of the ways it can also be used nefariously through malware.

The documented hack affects “Apple internal iSight webcams found in earlier-generation Apple products, including the iMac G5 and early Intel-based iMacs, MacBooks, and MacBook Pros until roughly 2008.” Renowned security researcher Charlie Miller told The Washington Post that the hack could work on newer Macs as well, but it would require a “lot of work and resources.”

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  • SarcasticMisanthrope

    Who cares?

  • tool022611

    I care, I don’t need anyone looking in my house at me, my wife, or my kids. Good thing I keep mine covered just because of this reason.

  • winegar72

    Well I guess there will be no more Buffalo Bill impressions in front of my computer, lol….

  • ygreq

    That LED should have been connected in series with the camera. So that you would force the LED to light up with the camera. As it is not, someone should take notice and sue Apple for they are the main culprits.

  • jeffythequick

    Even more troubling would be having the microphone turn on remotely.

    Disable the camera with a piece of electrical tape, and it blocks out the camera.
    Put a piece of tape over the microphone, and it just muffles the sound, which can be enhanced.

    Amendment IV

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    I think “papers and effects” includes computers, files, and “secure in their persons” includes not being recorded against their will without a warrant. That’s for the NSA and government. For people doing that, throw them away, and let them rot in prison, and let them out when they’re too old for anyone to care about them.

About the author

Alex HeathAlex Heath has been a staff writer at Cult of Mac for three years. He is also a co-host of the CultCast. He has been quoted by places like the BBC, KRON 4 News, and books like "ICONIC: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation." If you want to pitch a story, share a tip, or just get in touch, additional contact information is available on his personal site. Twitter always works too. All DMs excepted.

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