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The Dark Side of Webcams

Maybe it was last November, when the Oxford Dictionaries selected “selfie” as its international Word of the Year. Or perhaps it was the following month, when President Obama took that infamous selfie with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, with the First Lady off to the side.

But no matter when it started, the era of the selfie is well under way. Cameras — both for still photos and videos — have become ubiquitous in smartphones, tablets, and laptops around the world. To be fair, the technology has allowed ordinary people to communicate across long distances better than ever before, using pictures and videos worth more than a thousand words.

But two weeks ago, the dark side of webcams came into full view, when the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the arrests of more than 90 people as a result of their Blackshades software probe. Blackshades is a form of malware, or malicious code, that hackers can use to access their victims’ webcams to spy on them. Needless to say, it’s a bit disconcerting.

So how do you know if you’ve been infected? The FBI published some symptoms you should look for — things such as a webcam light turning on when the camera is not in use and text-based chat windows appearing unexpectedly on your screen. If your computer is infected, the FBI recommends submitting a complaint to its Internet Crime Complaint Center with the word “Blackshades” in the subject line and also contacting your Internet service provider, antivirus software company, or another computer security professional for help in removing the malware.

Of course, if you want to prevent malware from infecting your computer or your network at work, the best defense in general is common sense. Don’t click on suspicious links. Don’t download attachments from people you don’t know. And remember, be wary of webcams. Unfortunately, you never know who might be watching.

If you have any questions about cyber risk or cyber insurance, please feel free to email me at You can also follow me on Twitter @doughertyshawn.

Shawn Dougherty

Shawn Dougherty is the assistant vice president of ISO's Specialty Commercial Lines Division. He is responsible for providing the overall direction, leadership, and client service for ISO's cyber liability (e-commerce), D&O (management protection), businessowners, crime and fidelity, financial institutions, employment-related practices liability, and professional liability (other than medical) insurance programs. He is also the ISO product manager for the Lloyd's Wordings Repository, an electronic database of policy wordings and clauses regularly used within the London market. Mr. Dougherty has worked at ISO since 1988.

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