Watch that Webcam

We’ve fondly nicknamed Cory Grenier our “webcam man.” That’s because as product manager for the ThinkCentre M Series, his team worked with customers to develop a unique privacy solution for Lenovo’s latest all-in-one desktop PC. In this post, Cory discusses the ins and outs of webcam privacy and security.Webcam Benefits My first video conference took place in California in 1999 when web cameras were first becoming commonly integrated into PCs.  The video quality was choppy and the motion was severely delayed.  In 2007, I was proud when Lenovo donated webcam equipped PCs to the Freedom Calls Foundation in order to enable servicemen and women abroad to freely video conference with their families back home.  And I smiled when I heard about a UK software engineer capturing a thief in the act using a program to activate the webcam’s record function and email himself the photos in order to convict the culprit. Today PC webcam performance is excellent, and the leading video conference program, SKYPE, claims more than 521 million users worldwide. Because of the benefits delivered by webcams, most of us don’t even think about the small lens on our PC that is activated and capable of recording our every move each time we turn on our PC.  People who know the risks of webcam spying are constantly covering the PC monitor webcam with tape or a folded piece of paper. An ‘aftermarket’ physical webcam cover

Privacy Threats on the Rise

The threat of people hijacking a useful communication device and turning your webcam into an unlawful spy tool is real.   A NBC news affiliate reported that a PC user was shocked when a Dell Technical Call Support employee remotely activated her webcam without her permission.  The FBI is investigating a Philadelphia school district that remotely activated student PC webcams on their MacBooks without student or parental permission.  And in Florida, police arrested a 23-year-old student posing as a helpful PC repairman, on federal charges for computer tampering.  The offender installed webcam spy software to remotely activate webcams on at least seven women’s PCs to record over 20,000 illegal photos.  An IDC report, The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe, states that online users have an average of 45 Gigabytes of digital content online – but half is created by outside sources.   In response to the invasion of privacy by remotely activated webcams, the U.S. Congress has drafted the Surreptitious Video Surveillance Act of 2010, which would make it a felony to remotely spy on people in their private residences using video cameras. The red circle indicates the webcamera is off Most global Lenovo customers told us they need webcams for video conferencing, but often these same businesses required a mechanism to protect against unlawful recording of their employees and operations.  I know of government departments, utility plant operators and home office customers who have demanded a physical webcam cover on AIO PCs.  The traditional way to manually disable an integrated PC webcam in Windows is to:

  1. Open Control Panel >
  2. Click Hardware and Sound >
  3. Click Device Manager >
  4. Select Imaging Devices >
  5. Webcam Driver Tab >
  6. Select Disable and ‘Yes”

To solve this problem our ThinkCentre marketing and design teams invested a lot of time to design and tool the factory in order to build a standard physical on/off shutter to cover the webcam on our most recently launched desktop product – the ThinkCentre M90z AIO.  You can see it in this video about the design behind the M90z. A local art gallery curator who is using the ThinkCentre M90z told me he is really satisfied with the convenience of being able to ensure the camera is shut-off when needed.  I should emphasize that we allow customers to choose the webcam as an option because not all AIO customers require video conferencing.  If a customer selects a webcam then we automatically include the physical lens cover as a free add-on. It’s our way of giving customers a built in solution, without having to trade off between privacy and cost.