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Are webcams spying on my family?

Common Sense's privacy expert discusses how to use webcams safely.

Topics: Online Safety

Video cameras—baby cams, doorbell cams, even the webcam on your laptop—are supposed to keep you safe, right? Well, that's becoming increasingly debatable. Recent news of hackers using them to spy on kids, and security companies giving homeowners' personal video recordings to the police, have made many parents suspicious of those little glowing glass eyes.

Should we be scared? We sat down with the Common Sense Privacy Program director, Girard Kelly, who is a privacy and security attorney, to learn the real risks of using webcams. (Before we start, Girard needs to remind folks that he is not your lawyer and anything he says should not be taken as legal advice.) He says that one big reason so many families use these and other high-tech products that rely on our most intimate information is because we don't actually know what companies are collecting about us, how they use it, or how they're making money from it. Still, a lot of folks depend on webcams, whether it's for family connection, peace of mind, or convenience. If you choose to use them, we'll explain how to use them as safely, securely, and privately as possible.

What's the biggest risk with webcams—the ones built into your laptop, phone, or tablet? Can people or companies really watch you through the webcam—and do they?

Webcams use software to control their recording functions either on a mobile device or laptop. The software determines when to turn on the webcam, when to record, and whether to stream the video recording over the internet or save the recording as a file.

What's the risk?

That saved file can be stored on the device itself or on the software company's servers in the cloud. If they're online, then employees at the company (either authorized or unauthorized) could watch your past video-recording files at any time without your knowledge.

Depending on the type of software, and its features and permissions, employees at the webcam company may even be able to remotely trigger the webcam software on your device. They could turn it on and start streaming or recording video of you without your knowledge. (You would notice if your laptop's recording indicator light came on, but most phones don't have this.)

Also, malware or spyware installed on a mobile device or laptop could provide unauthorized access to hackers, who could activate your webcam and even disable your webcam's hardware recording-light indicator even though it is actively recording you. There have been news reports of hackers taking control of unsecure baby cams to scare children and even of school officials activating webcams remotely on a student's district-issued laptop computer without their knowledge.

What about devices like the Ring Doorbell, the Google Nest Cam, and video baby monitors?

Devices like baby monitors, the Ring Doorbell, and Google Nest Cam (indoor and outdoor models) are similar to webcams in mobile devices and laptops because they also use software to control their functions.

What's the risk?

These webcams are all connected to the internet, which means you can use a mobile app to view the streaming webcam recording on your phone or laptop. But anyone with the correct username and password could view them as well. They're only as secure as the account holder's username and password. They have lots of other risks, too, including:

  • Hackers. There have been news reports of hackers breaking into people's Ring Doorbell user accounts and uploading personal video recordings to the internet without the owners even knowing their accounts were breached.
  • Data privacy. Independent researchers have tested the app that Ring uses to control a webcam doorbell device and discovered that the company engages in secret tracking of a consumer's behavior and activity on their mobile device, which they sell to third-party companies for profit.
  • Facial recognition. The software that controls these devices can be used to identify specific individuals without their knowledge or consent. Let's say your doorbell webcam captures an image of your kid at the front door. That recording could be sent to the security company's servers, or even local law enforcement, and compared against a "watch list"—a line-up of other images deemed "suspicious"—using facial recognition technology. If your kid is matched to a face on that list, their photo could end up on the watch list, shared with your neighbors, and even sent to the police for further investigation.

    Facebook settled a lawsuit for $500 million dollars because of its improper identification and sharing of individuals' identities from facial recognition without their permission. The problem was with Facebook's photo-labeling service, called "Tag Suggestions," which uses face-matching software to automatically identify and suggest the names of people in users' photos without their knowledge or consent.
  • Surveillance. Identity information from a webcam company often ends up in the hands of the government, including law enforcement. For instance, Ring has a partnership with over 600 law enforcement agencies across the country and provides them access to saved doorbell webcam footage with only a probable cause warrant—which basically turns your webcam into a surveillance and wiretap device.
  • Security. Security of these types of webcams is another concern. Many devices don't use passwords or only use simple passwords when you first activate them. There have been news reports of hackers scanning the internet looking for vulnerable webcams—ones without strong security protections or easy-to-guess passwords—and gaining access to hundreds of live video feeds from vulnerable webcams, webcam door bells, CCTV devices, and even baby monitors.

What can parents do to use them safely?

There are a few things they can do, including:

  • Cover the camera. The best advice for parents using doorbell webcams, baby monitors, or webcams in a mobile device or laptop is to use physical adhesive webcam covers for your laptop and mobile devices so you are in control of when video is recorded.
  • Use strong passwords. To protect against malware or spyware that could infect your mobile device and webcam software, use strong passwords or passphrases on your monitoring apps—or, even better, use a password manager (which is like Fort Knox for all your passwords)—and reinstall your laptop or mobile device software operating system every six months or year—like spring cleaning to remove and wipe away any viruses.
  • Put it away. Even if you cover the webcam, the device can still record (the video will be blacked out but it'll pick up audio and other markers, such as the time and place the recording was captured). The software may still be secretly collecting personal information from your mobile device or recording audio information through the microphone. Turning off your mobile device or laptop and storing it in a separate room is the most effective way to prevent the webcam or microphone from being activated and recording video or audio without your knowledge.

Living with technology

Yes, a lot of this sounds scary. But if you really need your webcam—to work from home, to keep an eye on the kid's room, to monitor your front door traffic—these devices provide a service that takes some of the stress out of life. We just want you to be able to make informed decisions about the high-tech products you introduce into your home, since the companies that make them aren't always transparent about how they collect and use the data that flows through them. We recommend the Mozilla Foundation's "privacy not included" section for privacy evaluations on a wide array of products.

Caroline Knorr
Caroline is Common Sense Media's former parenting editor. She has many years of editorial and creative marketing writing experience and has held senior-level positions at, Walmart stores, Cnet, and Bay Area Parent magazine. She specializes in translating complex information into bite-sized chunks to help families make informed choices about what their kids watch, play, read, and do.