Last week was unsettling for Mac users worried that someone could hijack the cameras and microphones built into their phones and laptops.
On Thursday, Apple disabled the Walkie Talkie audio chat feature in its smartwatches to fix a vulnerability that would allow someone to listen in on consumers without their consent, according to a report in TechCrunch.
While targeted advertising works so well that it can seem like tech companies must be illicitly recording your conversations, privacy and security experts say that isn’t actually happening—marketers have other, very effective ways to learn what people may be interested in.
On the other hand, there is a real, if remote, risk that hackers could take control of your devices’ cameras and microphones, security experts say.
Skip Dedicated Video and Audio Chat Apps
“Every time you install a new app on your device, you’re adding another back door into your system, with more potential software vulnerabilities that hackers can try to exploit,” says Cody Feng, project leader for security and privacy testing at Consumer Reports. “In digital security, we call this your ‘attack surface.’ Reducing that surface is always a good idea.”
A web browser isn’t inherently more secure, but the fewer apps on your machine with access to your camera and microphone, the fewer opportunities hackers will have to break in and spy on you.
Check Your Device Permissions
All sorts of apps can request permission to access the camera, microphone, and other features, such as location information, on your phone or computer. Using the steps below, it’s easy to see which apps have requested permission, and revoke permissions that you’ve granted in the past.
“Make sure you understand all the apps that have permissions for video and microphone access,” Disconnect’s Jackson says.
Update Your Software and Firmware
Updating software and firmware is critical to staying on top of your digital security. Sometimes, as with the Apple Watch’s Walkie Talkie problem, manufacturers will roll out updates automatically to help keep consumers safe when serious flaws are identified.
“Don’t wait until you hear about a problem to look for updates, and install security updates immediately,” Feng says. Turn on automatic updates, or check for updates frequently.
The Tape Method
There’s a famous picture of Mark Zuckerberg with a laptop in the background that has a piece of tape covering the camera. Doing the same with your computer is one shortcut to peace of mind. If tape looks too messy for you, you can buy stickers just for this purpose that are designed to be easily moved and replaced.
However, you could try what’s called a “microphone blocker,” essentially a dummy plug with nothing on the other side of it that you insert into your device’s headphone or microphone jack.
“That may not work on every device,” Jackson says, but microphone blockers are usually cheap, so if you’re really concerned about hacked mics, it may be worth a shot.