Researchers have found a way to discreetly activate Mac iSight cameras

isight facetime camera

Hackers have long had the ability to infiltrate a person’s personal computer, and enable their webcam without their knowledge. We’ve been hearing horror stories about this for years, where users were covertly spied on through their PC’s camera.

But Mac owners have always been led to believe that this can’t happen with the iSight camera, because it’s designed to always illuminate the adjacent green light every time it’s active. Researchers have found a way, though, to get around this behavior…

The story comes following a recently resolved criminal case in which a teenager was able to hack a high school classmate’s laptop and take nude photos of her with its built-in camera without her knowledge. He then tried to extort her with the images.

This wasn’t supposed to be possible—activating a laptop’s camera without its companion LED light— but it is. And according to a new report from The Washington Post, the FBI has had this capability for many years now, and has been actively using it.

The Post passes along the work of 2 researchers, who were able to replicate the hack:

“The built-in cameras on Apple computers were designed to prevent this, says Stephen Checkoway, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins and a co-author of the study. “Apple went to some amount of effort to make sure that the LED would turn on whenever the camera was taking images,” Checkoway says. The 2008-era Apple products they studied had a “hardware interlock” between the camera and the light to ensure that the camera couldn’t turn on without alerting its owner. […]

MacBooks are designed to prevent software running on the MacBook’s central processing unit (CPU) from activating its iSight camera without turning on the light. But the researchers figured out how to reprogram the chip inside the camera, known as a micro-controller, to defeat this security feature.”

The pair contacted Apple about their findings back on July 16. And although they say employees followed up several times, they didn’t say anything about a resolution. For now, the only way users can ensure they’re safe is to cover the camera with something.

If you’re interested, the research paper is entitled ‘iSeeYou: Disabling the MacBook Webcam Indicator LED’ and you can find it here.