The picture of tape covering the web cam on what’s believed to be Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s computer sparked lots of debate about the safety of personal webcams.

You may not use the webcam built into the top edge of your laptop screen, but how do you know someone else isn’t secretly using it to spy on you?

It may sound far-fetched, but in 2014 a Russian website carrying video captured illegally from 500 UK webcams was exposed and in 2015, a British hacker was convicted of spending up to 12 hours a day spying on people by hacking their webcams.

Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to make sure your webcam can’t be hacked in this way.

Step 1:  Unplug it

The quickest and easiest way to make sure your external webcam can’t be used to spy on you is to disconnect it either from your computer, or the mains. Without power, a webcam won’t work, so if you’re not using it, keep it unplugged.

Some laptop webcams have a sliding cover to achieve the same thing, but a piece of electrical tape or even a Post-it note stuck over the lens works just as well for other styles of integrated camera.

Even if you do use your webcam regularly, keeping it covered can prevent embarrassing incidents —like inadvertently accepting a Skype video chat with your boss when you’re working from home wearing just your underwear…

Step 2: Change the password

Passwords are usually the weak spot of any supposedly secure system and webcams are no different. A webcam that connects directly to a wi-fi network (usually called IP cams) will have a video feed and settings page that’s protected by a username and password. Many people don’t bother changing these from their defaults, which is an open invitation to a hacker.

So now is a good time to review its security settings — and make any necessary changes.

[Related story: How to create strong passwords and never forget them]

Woman waving at webcam

Step 3: Don’t click attachments

The most insidious form of webcam hacking involves a RAT — a ‘remote administration tool’ that allows a hacker to take control of a PC and its built-in webcam. RATs are usually installed as part of a wider malware infection, but there have been cases of criminals installing them on computers they then sell to someone else.

To avoid a malware infection make sure you don’t click on any unusual email attachments or download anything suspicious. Which leads us to Step 4...

Step 4: Scan your PC for malware

The best way to prevent this is to keep your operating system and web browser up-to-date and perform anti-malware scans on a regular basis.

BT Web Protect is available to all BT customers, warning if you are about to visit a harmful website. Security software BT Virus Protect Plus is now free to BT customers. Find out more about both in the box below.

It’s important to keep other software up to date, too (particularly Adobe Flash) and avoid downloading dodgy software for questionable websites.

If you are think you’ve been hacked read: What to do if your PC is infected with malware

Webcam in close-up

Step 5: Look for the indicator light

Most relatively recent laptops also have a light next to their built-in webcam to indicate when it’s in use. If you notice that yours lights up when you’re not using the webcam, that’s usually a sign of something suspicious, so you should assume your PC is infected and take any necessary steps to disinfect it.

Step 6: Change your webcam

Older analogue cameras don’t encrypt or password-protect the signal in any way, although you can switch to a different wireless channel to avoid interference. That means anyone with the same type of camera can simply wander the streets with a receiver, switching channels until they find a wireless signal they can watch.

There’s absolutely nothing you can do about this, other than throw the camera away and buy a more secure model. So if this sounds like your set-up, it’s time to go shopping: Amazon has a wide selection of webcams on offer.

Graphic of person looking at webcam

Step 7: Turn on your firewall

PCs connected to a home network should be protected by a firewall, a piece of hardware or software that acts as an extra safety net by monitoring incoming and outgoing network traffic for signs of unauthorised access attempts.

On Windows computers the Firewall is turned on by default, to check click the Start button – Control Panel. Type ‘Firewall’ and select Windows Firewall and select ‘Turn Windows Firewall on or off.’

Some security and antivirus software, such as BT Virus Plus, has its own built-in firewall.

Step 8: Use your webcam sensibly

Once you’ve taken the steps above, make sure you take precautions in how you and your family use webcams. Avoid conversations with people you don’t know and don’t use webcams in your bedroom or any room of the house where private activities take place.  

Our article: Is you PC being hacked? 6 tips to help keep your PC free from attack, is packed with advice.

Updated June 2016 by Hannah Bouckley