Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Can your Webcam be Used to Spy on You?

WXPNews: Published by Sunbelt Software since 2001

Vol. 10, #8 - Feb 23, 2010 - Issue #418

 Can your Webcam be Used to Spy on You?

  1. Editor's Corner
    • Can your Webcam be Used to Spy on You?
    • Follow-up: Censoring the 'Net
    • Quotes of the Week
  2. Cool Tools
    • Tools We Think You Shouldn't Be Without
  3. News, Hints, Tips and Tricks
    • Update on the cause of the XP BSOD
    • Will Microsoft market its own phone?
    • Will the Yahoo-Microsoft deal make Bing better?
  4. How To: Using XP Features
    • How to remove all but the most recent restore point
  5. XP Security News
    • Botnet army of XP Pro SP2 computers
    • Browser ballot debuts in Europe next month, but attackers may take advantage
  6. XP Question Corner
    • What service pack is installed?
  7. XP Configuration and Troubleshooting
    • Device Manager doesn't display devices that aren't connected
    • Error message when you try to set IP address on a NIC
  8. Fav Links
    • This Week's Links We Like. Tips, Hints And Fun Stuff
  9. Product of the Week
    • Classic Menu For Word 2007: Replaces Word 2007 Ribbon With Familiar Office 2003 Menu.

Kiss Your Antivirus Bloatware Goodbye

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Even if you run "free" antivirus software, it hijacks 20% of your PC, so it's really not free at all! Get VIPRE now and see how fast your PC can really be:

 Editor's Corner

Can your Webcam be Used to Spy on You?

A big story making the headlines this past week involves a school district in Pennsylvania that's been accused of spying on its students - at home - by using the webcams in their school-issued laptop computers. A student has filed a lawsuit over it and according to reports, the FBI is investigating to determine whether federal laws against wiretapping or unauthorized computer access were broken.

This story brings up quite a few issues. The school district representatives say they only activated the webcams in an attempt to find missing laptops. That makes me wonder whether, privacy issues aside for the moment, issuing laptops to students is a good idea or a silly one. Kids are kids, and kids lose and abuse "things." When a kid loses a $40 textbook, that's not good. When a kid loses a $400 laptop, that's much worse. The school claims that all 42 times it activated the remote software during the past 14 months, it was only to search for missing computers. 42 times $400 equals $16,800. If each of those incidences pertained to a different laptop, that's a significant chunk of change gone missing. Presumably those were tax dollars, unless someone donated the laptops to the district.

(Note: I used $400 as an example because you can get a decent medium-powered laptop for that amount. However, the computers in this case were Macs, so the retail value of the computers was much higher than that. The least expensive Macbook in the Apple Store is $999. At that price, we're talking almost $42,000).

Now, I understand the sentiments behind issuing the laptops. Certainly, in today's world, students need access to the Internet; any who don't have it will be at a major disadvantage in doing research for papers, etc. In a tough economic climate, some families may be unable to afford to buy their children computers. Giving all of the kids computers is intended to ensure "equal opportunity," to make sure they all have the means to do their work, regardless of how much money their families have or don't have. I get that (and I'll even restrain myself and not rant about how part of the reason families can't afford to buy the computers themselves is because they're paying outrageous school taxes).

But might it be both more economical and more all-round practical to issue each student a desktop computer instead of a laptop? I'm guessing the school already has computer labs that students can use when they're there. The laptops are to use at home. Desktop systems generally cost less for equal computing power, but more important, they aren't as fragile and portable so they're less likely to be broken or lost. It's also easier, with a desktop system that's in a fixed location in the home, for parents (those few who care to) to provide oversight when their kids are using the computer, thus helping to discourage bad online behavior.

Okay, so maybe there are advantages to a laptop. It's certainly easier for the kids to take them home in the first place; they're self-contained so you don't have to worry about parts and pieces - monitors, mice, keyboards, etc. - and you can get pretty cheap notebooks/netbooks these days. But do students really need systems that are decked out with webcams? Sure, they come built into most retail models, but I would guess it would be easy for a school district, buying hundreds of the things, to have the manufacturer supply systems that don't have that feature, or at least to disable the software/drivers that make it work. Because really, what do you think those adolescent and pre-adolescent kids are going to do with a webcam?

In fact, there have been numerous cases of teens sending webcam photos of themselves in inappropriate dress or sexually provocative poses to their friends. And even worse, webcams are a favorite tool of online pedophiles and child pornographers. They usually gain access to the child's webcam through social engineering tactics (persuasion, or even offering the child money to engage in webcam sessions).

The bad guys can also use technological means to view the child's webcam, sending email or an IM with a link that downloads malware called RATs (Remote Access Trojans) to the child's computer, which activates the camera. Of course, if someone has physical access to the computer (like the IT person at the school district that issued the computers to students), that person can install software that will let him/her remotely control the webcam at will. In the Pennsylvania case, students reported that the lights on their webcams would turn on frequently.

It's bad enough that a school district, an entity that's entrusted with the care of children, might stoop to possibly illegal means to spy on them, but at least they are ostensibly doing it to keep the kids out of trouble. But the broader point is that it's not just students with school-issued laptops who are vulnerable to this type of spying. Anyone who owns a computer with a webcam attached could have photos or videos of him/herself in the hands of strangers without even knowing it ever happened.

Do you sit at the computer unclothed? Make funny faces while you're typing? Pick your nose? Having a bad hair day? Think it doesn't matter because you're all alone in the privacy of your own home? If you have a webcam, your home might not be as private as you think. Some people routinely turn their webcams toward a wall or ceiling when they aren't using them, or cover them with something (some even have lens caps). If you're a little more paranoid, you might want to unplug it altogether.

Another point that often isn't mentioned is that many webcams have built-in microphones, or you may have a separate microphone that's turned on. So even if you can't be seen, it's possible for an outsider to listen in on any sounds that occur in the vicinity of your computer. Answer the phone and have a conversation while sitting in front of the system? Talk with someone else who comes into the room? Play your favorite heavy metal music while you're working? Well, at least that last one might discourage eavesdroppers. Seriously, though, it's important to remember that if you're able to access the outside world, the outside world may be able to access you.

RATs have been around for many years. One of the first to become well known was Back Orifice. RATs can capture screen content, sound and video, log keystrokes, even ferret out your passwords. Early RATs used ICQ, IRC and other Internet communications technologies that were popular at the time, to communicate with the malware author or distributor.

Some RATs may even come with your hardware. Earlier this month, IT World reported that some "gifts" distributed by the Chinese to British businesspeople at trade fairs and exhibitions, including memory sticks and cameras, contained Trojans that provided the Chinese with remote access to users' computers when those devices were hooked up to the system.

So what do you think? If your child's school issued a laptop with a webcam, would you tape over it or otherwise attempt to disable it? Would you send the computer back and say "no, thanks?" Is it okay for schools to spy on students as long as they notify parents and get their permission? Or are you afraid that those doing the "watching" might not be entirely trustworthy? Do you have a webcam? Do you cover it or unplug it when you're not using it? Do you think the dangers of webcams have been blown out of proportion? Or should they be banned from computers used by kids? Should they at least carry a warning label? We invite you to discuss this topic in our forum at

Follow-up: Censoring the 'Net

Last week's editorial started with a discussion of obvious and blatant cases of Internet censorship, such as is the practice in China (which, as one reader pointed out, is the PRC and which differs from the CCP - Chinese Communist Party - although my flying fingers typed the wrong acronym in the previous article). I also discussed trends toward more and more censorship in democratic countries like Australia and the U.S. (which is, indeed, a Republic - but one founded on democratic principles). Based on the number and nature of the posts, many of you have very strong feelings about this topic.

Unfortunately, some made it into a partisan political issue. I have my own party preferences (and have been accused by readers in the past of being a "left wing socialist" and a "right wing nutjob" - although not by the same person at the same time), but I don't see this as a partisan issue at all. Regardless of which party is in power, the other one will be at some time in the future. History shows that when the government gains more power under one administration, it rarely loses or gives up that power under the next. Those who think giving the government more control because their guys are in now and would never abuse that authority are just being naïve.

Amusingly, some of the posts prove the point that some people are quick to be offended. At the end of each editorial, I ask a series of questions. Those questions take different sides of the issue, in an attempt to spur discussion. One of my questions was "Are we creating a nation of weak children by outlawing the bullying behaviors that were once a normal part of growing up?" As evidenced by some answers, there are many who would say "yes" and many others who would say "no." And that's the point. I didn't take a position on that one way or the other - but Stardance chastised me for even asking the question, and proceeded to classify me as either thoughtless, a (former) bully, an overprotected child who never experienced bullying or someone who enjoys watching others be bullied. Good grief! The really funny thing is that I totally agree with his own stated opinions on bullying, particularly in regards to children defending themselves. But based on his statement that I should "return to writing on topics about which you actually know something worthwhile to express," I guess he'd like to practice a little censorship on my editorials.

Well, whether or not it's "worthwhile" is a subjective matter, but I can assure you that as a child, I had my share of first-hand experience with being bullied and nothing makes me more angry than to see it happen to a child or other helpless individual. However, I still contend that not every behavior that's wrong should be rendered criminal. That's part of a mentality that expects the government to take care of everything for us, and I applaud Stardance for taking care of himself and defending himself against the bully.

Much as I believe that particular post showed a vast misunderstanding of what I wrote, I am thankful that I live in a country where both Stardance and I are free to say what we think in a public forum, without having our words censored.

And as always, I thank all of you who participated in the discussion.

'Til next week,
Deb Shinder, Editor

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Quotes of the Week

"Politeness and consideration for others is like investing pennies and getting dollars back." - Thomas Sowell (1930 - )

"I feel like a fugitive from the law of averages." - William H. Mauldin (1921 - 2003)

"If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing." - Margaret Thatcher (1925 - )

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 Cool Tools

Tools We Think You Shouldn't Be Without


MediaWidget is the quickest and easiest way to transfer all of your music, videos, photos, podcasts, and more from your iPod to PC. Check out the cool Youtube demo and download the trial here:

Do you have programs you just can't seem to get rid of? Uninstaller! 2010 "ALL New" Version Just Released:

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Search for a driver and you get a ton of Driver Software offers instead. But how do you know which one is good? Try Driver Genious 9.0. Free scan.

Why back up when you can sync? Simply replicate every piece of data to another drive in real-time. Set it and forget it.

Spellchecker is NOT ENOUGH! Improve your English writing skills with WhiteSmoke a smarter solution for high quality writing. Try it:

Get your speed back! Advanced Vista Optimizer will tweak Vista for Max performance. Easy to use:

 News, Hints, Tips and Tricks

Update on the cause of the XP BSOD

Last week, we reported that some - but not all - Windows XP computers that installed one of the February security updates (MS10-015) were experiencing "blue screen of death" type crashes. Now we know why it happened to some and not others. Microsoft's investigation into the matter revealed that the computers that crashed were infected with malware - a rootkit called Alureon. Find out more about the problem here:

Will Microsoft market its own phone?

Last week, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Steve Ballmer introduced the new Windows Phone 7 series, which replaces Windows Mobile in the phone space. Reaction from the tech press and public was mostly positive, and I wrote about some of the features of the new and drastically redesigned mobile OS interface in our sister publication, Win7News:

Now there are rumors (and at this point, that's all they are) that Microsoft may be going further and planning to market its own branded smart phone, as Apple does with the iPhone and Google recently did with the Nexus One. You can read about it here:

Meanwhile, some analysts speculate that Microsoft may be planning to buy Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the Blackberry, or even Nokia, although others refute that and saying getting into the hardware business would be a mistake:

Will the Yahoo-Microsoft deal make Bing better?

The U.S. Department of Justice says "yes." Although we're used to hearing about anti-trust suits against Microsoft, when it comes to search engines, it's Google that has had the market all wrapped up. The DOJ, in approving the deal between Microsoft and Yahoo to combine forces in the search space, said the collaboration will make Bing better able to compete - and that's good for consumers. Read more here:

 How To: Using XP Features

How to remove all but the most recent restore point

System Restore is a great feature, but all those restore points can take up a lot of space on your hard drive. It's easy to get rid of them all - just disable and then re-enable System Restore. But what if you want to keep your most recent one, just in case? Yep, there's a way to do that, too. Here's how:
  1. Click Start | Run.
  2. In the Run box, type CLEANMGR
  3. In the Select Drive dialog box, choose the partition where the restore points are located.
  4. On the More Options page of the Disk Cleanup dialog box, click the Clean Up button.
This will delete all the restore points except the most recent one and free up space on your hard disk.

 XP Security News

Botnet army of XP Pro SP2 computers

A new botnet called Kneber has been discovered by a security firm, which is said to have infected tens of thousands of computers - most of them running Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2. It steals account names and passwords for financial services sites, social networks and email accounts, among others. It targets large companies and organizations, but home computers aren't immune. You get infected by visiting a malicious web site that installs malware on your machine, or by downloading a malicious email attachment. Find out more here:

Browser ballot debuts in Europe next month, but attackers may take advantage

In accordance with the UE antitrust settlement, Microsoft must begin displaying a "browser ballot" on computers in Europe as part of an update to Internet Explorer. The ballot page will present users with a list of different browsers they can choose from as alternatives to IE.

However, there's a good chance that attackers will take advantage of this to create fake browser ballot screens to pop up, with links that lead not to the browser of choice but to a malware download. So if you see the ballot screen, be careful. You can see what the real browser ballot screen looks like here:

 XP Question Corner

What service pack is installed?

I just got an old computer from my brother when mine died. It's running XP but what I'm wondering is what service pack (if any) it has installed. I know there must be a quick and easy way to find this out. Can you help? - Diane J.

There are several ways to determine what service packs have been applied:
  • Click Start | Run. In the Run box, type winver and press Enter. This will display the About Windows screen that shows the version of Windows you're running. At the end of the second line, you should see the service pack number.
  • Click Start | Run. In the Run box, type MSINFO32. You'll see the System Properties dialog box and on the General tab, it shows your OS, edition, version and service pack number.
  • Click Start | Control Panel. Click the System applet. This displays the same System Properties dialog box.
  • Right-click My Computer. Click Properties. This also displays the System Properties dialog box.

 XP Configuration and Troubleshooting

Device Manager doesn't display devices that aren't connected

If you have devices that are installed but aren't currently connected to your Windows XP computer, you might not see them displayed in Device Manager - even when you click "Show hidden devices" on the View menu. However, if you want to see them there, there is a workaround that involves using the command line. To get the instructions for changing the display behavior, see KB article 315539 at

Error message when you try to set IP address on a NIC

If you attempt to set the IP address on a network interface card on your Windows XP computer, you might get an error message that says the IP address you entered is already assigned to another adapter. However, you don't have another network adapter installed. What's up with that? Well, it can happen if you move a NIC from one PCI slot to a different PCI slot. The network adapter that the error is referring to is present in the registry, but doesn't show up in Device Manager. What you have to do is uninstall the "ghost" NIC from the registry. There are a couple of different ways to do that, and you'll find instructions for both methods in KB article 269155 at

 Fav Links

This Week's Links We Like. Tips, Hints And Fun Stuff

Disclaimer: WXPNews does not assume and cannot be responsible for any liability related to you clicking any of these linked Web sites.

 Product of the Week

Classic Menu For Word 2007: Replaces Word 2007 Ribbon With Familiar Office 2003 Menu.

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 About WXPnews

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These documents are provided for informational purposes only. The information contained in this document represents the current view of Sunbelt Software on the issues discussed as of the date of publication. Because Sunbelt must respond to changes in market conditions, it should not be interpreted to be a commitment on the part of Sunbelt and Sunbelt cannot guarantee the accuracy of any information presented after the date of publication.


This newsletter and website and may contain links to other websites with whom we have a business relationship. Sunbelt Software does not review or screen these sites, and we are not responsible or liable for their privacy or data security practices, or the content of these sites. Additionally, if you register with any of these sites, any information that you provide in the process of registration, such as your email address, credit card number or other personally identifiable information, will be transferred to these sites. For these reasons, you should be careful to review any privacy and data security policies posted on any of these sites before providing information to them.

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