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Guidry: Your webcam can be used against you

Smile! Your private life might be streaming live on the Internet!

Whether we realize it or not, we carry around the means by which strangers can secretly record us. Nearly all mobile devices today have multiple cameras and a microphone. Think about all the places you take your phone or tablet, then ask yourself how you'd feel if those cameras were activated without your permission.

It's not just your devices, but those of the people around you, as well. Chances are, you've had a phone or tablet nearby during a private conversation with a lawyer, a doctor, a friend. What if someone else was watching and listening through that device?

Cameras can be hijacked in a number of ways. Cybercriminals can commandeer them with viruses, then extort you by demanding money for the deletion of potentially embarrassing photos and videos. Sometimes they have the nerve to imitate law enforcement, claiming that you have illegal content on your computer and will go to jail if you don't pay their fee.

If you happen to have Internet-connected security cameras for your home or business, these can be hacked via your network.

Don't say it can't happen, it already is. Camera- and microphone-activating viruses are in the wild as we speak. PCs, Macs, smartphones, tablets, video game consoles – everything with a webcam is vulnerable.

There's one easy way to make sure your cameras can't capture your private moments without permission: tape a tiny piece of paper over the lens. If this isn't convenient (for example, if you use your phone camera a lot), keep the device in your pocket or purse where it can't record anything but lint.

Microphones on computers can typically be disabled, but this is harder with a phone or tablet. When in doubt, leave the device out of earshot. And you might want to reconsider allowing the kids to have computers or game consoles in their bedrooms.

Keep your computer's antivirus updated. You also need to update all other programs on the computer especially Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader, and Flash. Watch for social media apps which may "helpfully" upload your photos and videos to the Internet with little warning.

How do you know if your camera has been hijacked? Webcams often make sounds or display a recording light when active, which can serve as a warning. You might even get a pop-up on your screen, complete with a picture of yourself sitting at your computer!

If hackers demand a ransom for your videos and photos, don't respond. Take your computer to a qualified tech support professional and see if they can remove any camera-activating viruses. You may also want to contact your local police department to find out the procedures for reporting cybercrime.

You can turn the tables on criminals with the help of your camera. Many security apps now include the option to take photos of whoever's got their mitts on your phone, if it's stolen or misplaced. The photos are emailed to you along with geolocation info so you can help police catch the thief.

With the prevalence of mobile devices these days, it's wise to take a few moments to consider the impact of unintentional surveillance.

• Triona Guidry is a freelance writer and IT specialist. Her Tech Tips blog (http://www.guidryconsulting.com/techtips) offers computer help and social media advice. She can be reached at info@guidryconsulting.com or via Twitter @trionaguidry.

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