Which one of your gadgets is spying on you?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Hacker and programmer
This is a photo of Al Sheedakim, a hacker and programmer from Winchester, Massachusetts, in his home office.

Many Americans were upset when they heard the NSA was keeping track of their phone and internet activities, even when the government agency claimed it was just using the information to protect the nation. What’s even more alarming, is that there are some hackers out there who can do the same thing, only their intentions are not so noble. In fact, earlier this month, a stranger hacked into the webcam of 19-year-old Miss Teen USA, Cassidy Wolf. They took pictures of her and threatened to post them on the web if she didn’t do what they wanted. How is it that a complete stranger could take control of her computer, without being in the same room?

And what else can hackers take control of? I suppose it depends on whether they are a “white hat” or a “black hat.” White hat hackers use their skills for good, teaming up with companies or government agencies to find weaknesses in their systems and fix them. On the other hand, black hat hackers find the vulnerabilities and use them for personal gain.

In the Miss Teen USA case, the hacker installed a computer software program called a Remote Administration Tool (RAT). This sneaky program gave them access to just about anything on the computer including files, pictures, and cameras. If the hacker wanted to, they could watch her every move. Apparently, they don’t even need a computer to do this!

A white hat company called iSEC Partners hacked into Samsung’s Smart TV, and discovered they could watch people in their home through the camera on the television. “If there’s a vulnerability in any application, there’s a vulnerability in the entire TV,” said Aaron Grattafiori, an analyst at iSEC. However, just because they find one bug doesn’t mean they can fix the entire hacking problem. “We know that the way we were able to do this has been fixed; it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways that could be discovered in the future,” said Josh Yavor, another company worker.

Believe it or not, the hacking doesn’t stop at TVs either. Virtually anything connected to the internet can be controlled by a hacker. Take home security systems, for example. They often come with an app that let’s you see camera screens, lock and unlock doors, and activate or deactivate alarms straight from your smartphone. If someone is savvy enough, they can take hold of this information and use it to plan a burglary. It certainly wouldn’t be hard, since they can see when you’re gone, turn off any alarms, and unlock all the entrances.

computer case
A hacker doesn’t even need to take apart your computer to get in.

If your smartphone’s security is compromised, it’s not just your home that’ll be put at risk, but all of your personal information. Take my own phone for example. Sure, someone can hack into it and post silly tweets if they want to be funny, but what about a hacker who’s not so nice? They can access my email, my school information, and even my bank account from my handheld device, stealing my identity if they really wanted to.

What if it’s not your electronics that a hacker wants to control, but your actual body? That sounds really wifi – oops, I meant sci-fi, my bad – but with medical technology advances, it’s absolutely possible. Actually, it’s already been done! In the McAfee FOCUS 11 – a conference where security companies can exchange ideas to toughen up computer programs –  hacker Barnaby Michael Douglas Jack successfully accessed his friend’s insulin pump.

This pump essentially releases certain chemicals into the body to help him live by fighting off diabetes. If Jack wanted to, he could have easily released a fatal amount of chemicals into his friend’s body and killed him!

In a world where just about everything connects to the internet, it’s important for you to protect your personal information. Make sure to update your computer’s security systems, like firewalls and antivirus protection software. It may be a little annoying when the update reminder pops up, but at least it can serve as a roadblock for the black hat hackers. If your gadgets are not being used at the moment, put them on airplane mode. This takes your device offline and out of the reach of greedy hackers. If you really want to be extra safe, you can put a little piece of paper on your cameras.

Featured image courtesy of Santiago Zavala on Flickr.