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Cyber War: Somebody’s Watching You

If you aren’t yet paranoid about someone spying on you using the webcam built in to your laptop or desktop monitor or smartphone, perhaps you should be. There’s a must-read story in Ars Technica about the latest skirmish in the long-running cyber war between Russia and Georgia. The piece is worth reading just for the geopolitical details and because it gives one a sense of the challenges governments face in this new theater. But the article’s real punch comes when it shows how these kinds of threats are already relevant to your everyday life:

Many casual home computer buyers give no thought to the fact that they are bringing a powerful surveillance tool into their homes, one that can eavesdrop on conversations, watch them walk about the room (and worse), and follow every move they make online. For most, this is still the stuff of science fiction, but the Georgian hack is one more reminder that these tools aren’t esoteric at all; indeed, they are widely available online and entire forums have sprung up to trade images of “slaves” (usually women) whose computers have been infected and who are being spied upon, often with voyeuristic or sexual intent.

These “remote access tools” (RAT) are standard fare now not just among hackers but among all sorts of otherwise-reputable organizations. The Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania famously had such software on its school-issued laptops to deter theft—and used it to watch students. (It paid more than $600,000 to settle the resulting lawsuits.) Computer rental companies have now been widely accused of installing such software to guard against theft, but they too are said to use it casually to spy on users. The “sextortionist” Luis Mijangos in California used such tools to spy on dozens of women. (One was so terrified after Mijangos was able to hear her conversations that she wouldn’t leave her dorm room for a week.)

As they say on the Internet, read the whole thing. And if you want to do something about this right away, you don’t have to concern yourself with fancy high-tech countermeasures. Just do as one of the Via Meadia editors did on the first day he got one of the AI’s newest  iMacs: put a sticky note over the spying camera eye.

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