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Peterson: Webcam lens itself to a creepy feeling

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It was several years ago that a webcam was introduced to our household computer by one of the kids.

I never liked it.

A webcam is a video camera hooked up to your computer. It used to be that you had to buy an eight-ball-sized camera, plug it into the computer and turn it on to make it work. The idea was you could talk to someone, like on the telephone, but instead of just hearing the voice of the person on the other end of the line, you could see that person, too.

As if it ever would shut down when you ordered it. I didn’t trust it.

It wasn’t perfect video because technology had not caught up to the product. There would be slight lags in real time where the camera couldn’t keep up with the action. And because it was a flat lens, it could only see what was in front of it.

Now, computers come with cameras already installed in them – little indentations a quarter the size of a dime. And they can see everything in front of them if you turn on a software program like Skype. It’s a wonder. I was at a baptism once and the infant’s father was overseas at the time, but someone had a laptop computer with a webcam in church, and so did the dad overseas. Even though he was on the other side of the world, he didn’t miss the baptism.

My Greek class last semester was online and the professor had several Skype conferences with small groups of students, which were graded. He was in Arizona, we were in Illinois. Fortunately, he did not require us to use the camera. Voices were enough, and Skype in this case was simply a conference call on a computer.

It was the longest hour of the semester, which would have been only that much longer had we been televised, being captured live searching frantically through notes for the right answers. Appearances don’t count when the camera is off. As if learning Greek online wasn’t enough.

When I sat at the computer and the eight-ball camera was pointed at me, I would turn it toward the wall. I was never certain it wasn’t watching. It gave me the creeps.

Apparently, my suspicions weren’t far off the mark. Someone could have been looking. I was watching NBC News the other week when a report was broadcast about predators – yes, that’s what they are called – who can hack into the webcam on your computer and watch what you are doing without you knowing it. My creep factor might have been early, but it was accurate.

All sorts of portable computer devices have cameras on them, and people take their computers with them wherever they go. In the kitchen. In the living room. In the bedroom. In the bathroom. The bathroom? If it’s comfortable enough for a magazine, it certainly is comfortable enough for a small notebook computer.

And, according to the news report, hackers are plucking low-hanging fruit when it comes to commandeering your webcam. All you have to do is open an innocent-enough-looking email for the hacker to take over the camera and start watching you.

That’s just what I thought would be the case several years ago when the first eight ball showed up on the computer desk. Except I wasn’t thinking about civilian hackers. I was thinking the government. “1984” and J. Edgar Hoover had a real effect on me.

I still think the government could commandeer my laptop camera, but the real problem is the civilian, who can break into your computer in about three minutes if he or she is really interested in you. Although, he’s not going to see much, other than me typing or, more likely, staring blankly at the screen with my mouth kind of half open and occasionally wiping away the drool.

I don’t take the laptop into the bedroom, and it certainly is too big for the bathroom. So I’m pretty safe.

But some people treat their computers like a close friend or a spouse, and they aren’t ashamed to do anything in front of it. It’s a machine, after all. It’s not interested in what’s going on.

It’s the predator, we find out, who is interested.

So what do you do? You don’t open email unless you really know the person it is coming from. And when you aren’t using your computer, turn it off and put the screen down just to be sure. Even covered with tape, it still can hear what you’re saying. Right?

Not to be caught napping – literally – I’ve put a piece of electrician’s tape over the camera lens on my laptop. And on my cellphone camera, just for good measure. It’s taken plenty of pictures of my pocket. But it goes everywhere with me. I don’t know whether cellphones can be hacked, but I’m not taking chances.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate, freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be reached at

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