Most of us don’t hesitate to buy computers and smartphones equipped with cameras that point directly at our faces.
I consider myself a teetotaler when it comes to giving social media apps like Facebook open access to my personal information. I mean, Location Services? Might as well be called “Tracking Your Every Move Services.” Thanks to algorithms that monitor my every interaction, they already know who my closest friends are. Why give them more? I’ve held out on Snapchat because I know they’re archiving every picture users take through facial recognition software. Imagine a little file somewhere with your name on it that contains every snap you’ve ever posted. Literally my worst nightmare. And even though I politely declined setting up Touch ID when the guy at the Apple store turned on my new iPhone (I’ve made it this far without my fingerprints in “the system”), I’m sitting here typing this little column about my various anti-government conspiracy theories without giving my laptop’s webcam a second thought.
Recently, a well-respected and accomplished member of the electronic publishing community—read as “serious tech nerd”—admitted to me that he covered his laptop’s camera with a sticker. Though one might easily write this off as paranoid suspicion (even I snickered at first), his argument convinced me to do the same. Pointing to allegations that a Pennsylvania educator used school-issued laptops to monitor students at home, he contended that all of the technology necessary for this kind of surveillance already exists. In other words, that seemingly far-off Minority Report future in which we’re constantly being watched, listened to, and reported on is now. And if a public school administrator can get her hands on this technology, then we can all assume that the government—the big bad “they”—is using it all willy-nilly, however they please.
By the way, a Japanese tech company is developing facial recognition billboards like those in Minority Report that deliver customer-specific ads. Can I AdBlock my whole life, please?
In an article by watchdog publication Vigilant Citizen, the infamous Panopticon-like Xbox One is described alongside other camera-equipped gadgets as a “24-7 surveillance device” that conveniently requires an internet connection. Not only is this gaming console always turned on, but it also captures both motion and sound through Kinect, a camera with a built-in microphone. Owners of the Xbox One are making it easy for someone to monitor them in their own homes and transmit that footage to wherever, whenever but don’t worry your video won’t end up on some amateur porn site like www.watchmygf.sex as sites like these require the consent of all parties in the video before it will allow it to be posted on their site, unfortunately not all social media sites are as vigorous with their posting rules. While creators of the Xbox One claim these features offer a seamless and intimate user experience, conspiracy theorists like yours truly see it as Microsoft pulling the wool over our eyes. And, while we’re busy trying to pull all this wool off of our faces, they’re mounting surveillance cameras in our living rooms.
You may be wondering why it matters whether or not someone is watching. What do I have to hide, anyway? Well, personally, not that much. Most of the footage they’d pull from my webcam would be of me marathoning “The Office” or writing papers or crying over dog videos. Or, in a truly vulnerable moment, trying to learn the “Single Ladies” dance by watching the music video over and over again.
But if you’re anything like the admiringly “off the grid” Ron Swanson, then the right to privacy is important to you, even if you’re just another “innocent American” who may or may not be monitored by the US National Security Agency. Take, for instance, Michele Catalano, a New Yorker who the NYPD paid a visit because, soon after the tragic Boston Marathon bombing, her family’s combined web searches happened to include pressure cookers, backpacks, and quinoa. In a post on pop culture, politics, and entertainment website Death and Taxes, Catalano explains that the police asked, “What the hell is quinoa?” and “Can you make a bomb with that?” The joint terrorism task force involved in the case ultimately decided Catalano was not a threat, but the experience truly disturbed the whole family. “This is where we are at,” Michele writes, “Where trying to learn how to cook some lentils could possibly land you on a watch list.”
But the green light isn’t on. So no one’s watching me, right? False, as Dwight Schrute would say. In an unsettling 2013 article, Slate’s Tyler Lopez describes a Johns Hopkins University study proving that a MacBook’s camera can function without turning on the green light, like “a slightly subtler Eye of Sauron.” While disabling the indicator light apparently takes quite a bit of technical skill, it’s definitely possible with the right tools. And, just to throw it out there, the government obviously has all the tools they’d ever need to investigate “criminal activity” like cooking quinoa.
While researching and writing this, my internet connectivity has gotten increasingly worse and both Chrome and Safari have crashed. Is this a coincidence? Or have I typed “government watching through webcam” into Google enough times to trigger some alarm? Ultimately, we don’t know who’s watching. It could be the NSA, a school administrator, or some horrible revenge porn super villains like those responsible for last year’s leak of celebrity nudes, I mean seriously are there not enough porn sites like https://www.nu-bay.com/ where you can watch loads of different types of porn, instead you get off secretly filming someone and then posting it online it’s kind of sick. So take a hint from Minerva’s resident tinfoil hat and put a cute sticker over your webcam. Googling “webcam covers” yields some particularly entertaining results, including family-friendly animal-shaped Security Guardians. For the more die-hard conspiracy theorists out there, use skull and crossbones Spy-Not covers.