Many of us are enjoying those fancy high-tech gadgets we got for Christmas. Devices like smartphones, Amazon's Echo, and Google Home make life easier with their voice-activated functions.
A few days back, 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.
Just a few days earlier, a security researcher revealed a similar flaw in the videoconferencing app Zoom that could be exploited to trick Mac users into opening a video call, even if they had uninstalled Zoom in the past. Both Apple and Zoom have issued updates to address the problem.
There are a few easy steps you can take to prevent spying using the microphone, no matter which brand of computer or smartphone you use.
“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.”
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.
Updating software and firmware are 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.
In other cases, as with the Zoom app, you may need to take additional steps to ensure you’re protected. According to Zoom, consumers who use the app can head to the site’s Download Center to check for updates.
“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.
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.
“That physical barrier is a great solution for video, but it won’t work quite as well for your microphone. 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. When working as intended, a blocker tricks a device into thinking a microphone is plugged in and switching over from the built-in microphone, so a hacker wouldn’t get a signal if they breached your system.
"There are the risks we accept with smart devices,” says Patrick Jackson, chief technology officer at Disconnect, a cybersecurity firm that has partnered with CR on investigations. “They have a lot of sensors, and you’re not always aware of whether they’re on or off.” However, Jackson says, But using the above methods you can always prevent spying using the microphone.