laptop camera

In the age of digital transactions, apps and websites make it increasingly easier to access services that require monetary transactions or identifying information.

As more people leave their lives within their phones or personal devices, the risk of having personal information stolen also increases. As hacker groups like Wikileaks and Anonymous grow in prevalence as does government surveillance of citizens through digital means, there have been increasing concerns about the security of Internet-users’ personal information, as well as their privacy.

Recently, one trend that has been growing in popularity is covering laptop and computer cameras with a sticky note or sticker. People believe doing so will increase personal privacy due to the rumor that the Federal Bureau of Investigation can monitor people through their personal devices.

But how much of this is truth?

Sascha Meinrath is the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State and an Internet freedom activist. In 2013, Meinrath’s work in protecting Internet freedom earned him a place on TIME’s Tech 40: The Most Influential Minds. Meinrath explained that the rumor regarding FBI surveillance was truer than some may believe.

“The easy answer is yes, [the FBI] has the capability of [monitoring through laptop cameras],” Meinrath said. “The more complicated area is when and how.”

He went on to say the FBI has access via programs like PRISM and Section 702 data collection to access streams via various sundry services and applications that many use on a daily basis.

“One has to surmise then that yes, there are certain platforms whether it’s your laptop, or your smartphone where they can access that and record whatever’s happening,” he said.

He also said the FBI has monitored “literally millions” of people who haven’t committed any crime. And this is one of the main concerns over what’s called “warrantless surveillance.”

Meinrath referenced an incident in 2013 in which all Verizon phone call data was collected under a secret order from the National Security Agency. He said the official government stance released at the time was that all phone calls were relevant to ongoing terrorist investigations. To him, what this meant was, in essence, the government criminalized everyone.

He said the number one thing people can do to protect themselves online is to be aware of the various services that are there to help. He also recommended using alternatives to popular communication sites like Skype that possess what’s called end-to-end encryption, which ensure that there is no mechanism for surveillance.

Meinrath also vouched for covering up computer cameras, which he said was an easy and popular way among “savvy technologists” to insure privacy.

Surveillance is not limited to government agencies: Penn State monitors student Internet usage as well.

“We know that Penn State definitely does some monitoring,” Meinrath said. “I would love to have a bit more transparency around that. Ostensibly, I think a lot of it is for prevention of illegal media downloads, accountability around that.”

However, he added there are still many questions left to be answered in regards to cyber security.

“We don’t know, for example, what are they doing with all the data that they’re collecting on our Canvas usage, what are they doing on the back-end?” Meinrath asked. “Are they sharing the information that’s coming into our email accounts? All of this is not really clear….I think that’s a problem, frankly.”

Student perspectives

Black Keyboard

Keys on a laptop light up while it's being used on Tuesday, March 20, 2018.

Eric Degolier said cybersecurity is “pretty important” to him.

“I don’t post any of my personal information regarding like bank accounts, money, social security, any of that stuff online,” Degolier (sophomore-biobehavioral health) said. “If [the FBI] want[s] to see me crying while I’m doing my work that’s okay, but otherwise I don’t really care; I don’t really think it’s a big concern.”

To Mackenzie Spangler, cybersecurity is very important.

“My computer holds a lot of my information and online in general hold a lot of stuff and thinking that anyone could get their hands on it is a scary thought,” Spangler (freshman-media effects) said.

She uses different passwords for everything, checks her computer for viruses monthly and renews her safety software annually. Spangler said she doesn’t think that the FBI can actually see people through laptop cameras, but thinks the jokes online that have spawned from the concern are funny.

Brittany Hernon said cybersecurity is very important to her, though as a college student, she doesn’t feel like there’s much to steal.

“...maybe in the future, like in the professional world of dealing with clients, there is a chance that hacking could be involved,” Hernon (accounting-junior) said.

She said she would feel uncomfortable if the FBI were to be monitoring her, but she also thought that there would have to be a reason for the monitoring, which she imagines would be reasonable.

Deanna Knipe said she makes sure to use sites that are encrypted and keeps all personal information off of her laptops and computers and monitors her apps to make sure they aren’t taking any information in the background. Her old computer got viruses often, even with McAfee Internet protection.

“I just upgraded to Apple to make sure I could protect my information better,” Knipe (senior-biobehavioral health) said. “I have never gotten any kind of virus on Apple and I have even extra security to protect it just in case, but I’ve never had a problem whereas all my past computers did always have at least one virus.”

Knipe said her roommate does cover her laptop camera.

“She told me it was more about people coming through your computer to see what you’re searching or like what you’re doing,” Knipe said. “I never heard about that, and it kind of freaks me out in thought, but never enough that I’ve decided to cover up my computer.”

Eric Staab said cybersecurity isn’t as important to him now as it was in the past.

“You see the news and stuff and you realize it’s not that safe now nor has it ever been, but we’re still here, we’re still functioning so as long as it keeps my debit card, my credit card and all that safe, I don’t really care if they know like, where I’m from and all that basic information,” Staab (freshman-mechanical engineering) said.

When the Yahoo hacking incident occurred, Staab made sure to be change his password and keep an eye on his information, especially since he uses one password for many of his online services. Regarding FBI surveillance, he said he doesn’t care either way and that to him, putting the tape on and off whenever he uses the camera is a hassle.

Joe Romano said the closest he’s come to having his information stolen was during the Target scare last year, when his parents received a notification that their financial information could have been stolen. However, it was a false alarm.

Romano (sophomore-engineering) said he knows many people who cover up their laptop cameras, but doesn’t subscribe to the habit himself.

“I don’t really care if [the FBI] can see me through my camera,” Romano said. “They can hear me too so it doesn’t really matter if I put a sticker over [my laptop camera]. I’m like, not doing anything illegal so. I believe it though, they probably do.”

If you're interested in submitting a Letter to the Editor, click here.