Be warned, your webcam is watching you

Cyber criminals are turning our computers and mobile phones against us in increasingly sinister ways

Features

22 Feb 2017

Before you proceed any further, take some Blu-Tack and stick it across the camera at the top of your laptop. Done? Good. Now we know we’re alone. Because, these days, you can never be too sure. Even the Pope can be seen in a recent photo with a judiciously placed sticker covering the camera on his iPad. In an era of fake news, leaked emails and purloined secrets, your laptop or tablet is the most dangerous possession you own.

Ever since the Neolithic revolution, human beings have learned how to separate themselves from others, transitioning from communal living to private rooms, from walls and moats to windows and motion-detector alarms. History, in one sense, is the history of screening ourselves off from our neighbours. But all these measures were intended to protect us from dangers lurking without, not those concealed within.

The 21st-Century Peeping Tom isn’t going to be found at your bathroom window but hiding deep inside your computer. Are you being watched as you read this piece? Would you even know? When I began to write my fifth novel, The Intrusions, it was a simple serial killer story set in a backpackers’ hostel in Queensway – but books never go where you want them to. Today’s stalker doesn’t need to enter their victim’s personal space (with all the attendant dangers of being caught), but, instead, can silently sneak in through your laptop. They can make your start menu disappear, your CD tray suddenly pop open or scare you by pumping strange sounds through your speakers.

It’s called Remote Access Technology, or RAT for short. It’s the same as when your computer freezes and you call the helpline and they take control of your screen. Except this isn’t consensual. Among the Dark Net’s snaky labyrinth of forums and message boards exists the sub-species of Ratter. Ratters are not content with trolling and insulting you online – they want to watch, and film, your reaction. The Ratter can get into your computer or smartphone as easily as I can type these sentences. They turn on the internal camera and film you as you go about your daily life. What they’re looking for is naked walk-bys, late night undressings and visits from lovers.

Almost always it’s women who are the victims of these crimes. The criminals post stolen images on forums or auction off the hack, allowing the highest bidder entry into your computer. They call their victims slaves and every time you turn on your laptop, they are there, silently watching as we once imagined God to be.

In The Intrusions I wanted to explore how deeply someone could penetrate a person’s private life – how, if they were determined enough, they could find out everything about you from your web presence and then use it against you. I also wanted to explore how technology has not only changed the nature of crime, but also fundamentally changed the nature of police work – screen gazing replacing shoe leather, data crunching instead of hunches. Like any weapon, the internet’s power lies only in the direction in which it is pointed.

We can lock our doors and draw our curtains but our laptops and smartphones are always on. If you walk through central London, your image is captured, on average, every six seconds. Marketing companies scan your email. Spiders and sex-bots crawl cyberspace. As technology gets better and cheaper, its intrusion into our lives will penetrate ever deeper and with it, the notion of personal space and privacy will shrink until it is perhaps nothing more than a faint dot in someone’s memory of civilisation.

The Intrusions (Faber and Faber) is out now


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