Online Privacy: Is The Camera On?

I keep masking tape over my device’s camera. Do others?

Devices like smartphones and computers can capture our image. Are they doing so surreptiously?
Online Privacy: Do we know whether the camera stays on or turns off?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Does the camera for Zoom stay on after the meeting? My kids mock me because I put a piece of masking tape at the top of my computer screen, over the camera lens. Online privacy concerns me! I don’t have tape on my phone camera but I still wonder if that can turn on accidentally too. Nadine, Tiburon

Dear Nadine: Your question, “Do Cameras Stay On” is totally apropos and logical in this time of “over sharing.” You are in good company, when it comes to putting tape over the camera. According to this 2016 NYT article, both Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook/Instagram) and James Comey (CIA) did the same thing.


Since we are not celebrities, politicians, or rock stars- it’s unlikely that someone or something would take the time to hack into our camera. It would take some initiative and there needs to be a reason. It is more likely that we would be in a Zoom or Webex meeting and inadvertently leave the camera and audio running when we think we are offline. That could lead to some embarrassing moments (like this  Ca. school board).

Most of the time, you know you are “on camera” or microphone because the small red LED light up at the top of the screen. However, there could be hacks. To make sure that your LED is working on/off correctly, try doing a friendly two-way SKYPE from your laptop. 

Check Your Settings…

Now, when it comes to phones I think we let our cameras willingly hijack us all day long, at least our pictures! What I mean by this- is take a look at the permissions on your phone. On an Adroid phone go: Settings > Apps > Permissions. On a Iphone go: Settings >Privacy > Camera.   

Now and for the future, ‘Permissions’ are an issue.  As you probably know, the latest televisions, refrigerators,  and other Internet connected appliances  send two way signals. According to this story in TechCrunch, The (Oregon office) FBI recommends placing black tape over an unused smart TV camera, keeping your smart TV up-to-date with the latest patches and fixes, and reading the privacy policy to better understand what your smart TV is capable of.

But, do not assume that all two way technology is evil. This new-found ability for devices to communicate may lead to good outcomes. If forgetful Grandma wants to age in place, the virtual assistant can remind her to turn off the stove and let you know when that happens.  If  she takes a fall, you can be notified by your connected watch. Hopefully, she’ll stay well and just use the connection for a two way drop-in with the fitness trainer! 

Another interesting application for the Internet connected phone is in the arena of gun control. Imagine that there is a two step process to unlock a gun, and a verification code is sent. A verification between the GPS on the phone and a sensor on the firearm might certify that the shooter is who(m) they say they are, that the gun has not been stolen, and it is a suitable place to use firearms, say hunting outdoors. The same system would ensure that an underage son or daughter hasn’t opened the gun case. 

check Your Comfort Level Too

In summing up, there’s more to it than masking tape. I paraphrase a piece of advice from the Oregon FBI (for TVs): “Know exactly what features your (…devices) have, and know how to control  them. Do a basic Internet search with your model number and the words “microphone,” “camera,” and “privacy.” Second, don’t depend on the default security settings. Change passwords if you can  and know how to turn off the microphones, cameras, and collection of personal information if possible. If you can’t turn them off, consider whether you are willing to take the risk of buying that model or using that service.”

Reading Routine: Print or Digital? Go Newspaper!

Bookstores are closed. From now on will digital reading be the norm for kids?

A sketch of a young boy and a young girl sitting back to back reading. Is their reading routine print or digital?
Should kid’s reading routine be print or digital? credit: Itstock.com/Archiv

Dear Ms Smartphone: We had a reading routine before the pandemic and took our kids to the bookstore every other Saturday for story time drop-in. During the pandemic that ceased and I had to get my three girls their own personal laptop computers and iPads so that they could get their school books online and keep up. This was not a hardship for us. But I’ve noticed that they never pick up a book any more. Is this a permanent change? Luis, Los Angeles

Dear Luis: The pandemic changed a lot of habits, and none more than reading since libraries and bookstores were not deemed to be essential businesses. The necessity to download texts and literature means we finally arrived at the ‘Age of New Media.’

As a parent caught between old and new media, it’s hard to say what is the better reading routine.  At the risk of being nostalgic, you probably want to be in the same space as your girls when they curl up with a story book and are drawn in by the words. While you trust them, you can never be sure when they read from a computer or iPad, that they are actually on the text and not engaged with something else.  

Reading or Browsing?

It’s noteworthy that there are digital fixes for this.  Kids know, faster than they can enjoin you to “stay in your lane” to speed toggle between open screens. Meanwhile, parents have their own digital weapons with screen time apps and reading countdowns.  That said, measures of spent time can be easily gamed.

Of course, digital conundrums bring digital opportunities. For example, if you have a loving grandma or family friend across town, they can now replicate story-time with your children. Kids and grandma download the same book, and then spend quality time reading aloud to each other from their tablets.

Browsing the literature too!

There is a fair amount of literature circa 2010-2015 about the differences  when children learn to read online versus in print. You can check some of these, and also note an author and educator, Maryanne Wolf, who specifically views print as the choice medium. Here in 2021, I am not sure that we are going to be able to make these side by side comparisons of print versus digital learning anymore.  Texts are changing and getting shorter.  Cyber media is integrated into everything we do – from cradle to grave. There are no more before and after experiments.

But, as a fellow parent, that is not a good enough answer. Kids are not in a laboratory. We can’t wait 20 years to find out whether print or digital media is better for developing strong reading skills. So, do a straddle. First, make sure that there is a ‘working’ book case in your home, and restock it regularly!  If you instill a reading habit, your children will mirror that. Soon, as businesses  re-open, you can resume your trips to the bookstore, or the library.

It’s At Your Doorstep!

Finally,  I would also encourage you to subscribe to a daily newspaper- one  delivered to your doorstep. It’s not just because DearSmartphone loves newspapers!  These are the vehicle for you to have a regular, ongoing discussion over the kitchen table, and, like our food,  the print menu changes daily. It’s a tool to mull over local pictures, news stories, and sports with your kids and even submit your own.  Most Sunday papers have special sections for young readers that you can keep around all week. Or, just follow the horoscope and comics together. It’s a way to bring print reading into their everyday lives and assure that as a family you also share meaning and local community.

Is Phone Number Safe?

A cellphone screen, just the top half, before the clubhouse audio chat app opens.
Getting signed up means giving out a phone number…

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is my phone number safe anymore? The other day I downloaded a new social media app called Clubhouse, because friends recommended it. Before it would open, the app required me to enter a phone number so it could send a verification code. It was a total accident but I got distracted and entered my spouse’s phone number by mistake. I think she walked in the room, and I wasn’t paying attention. Anyway, a few hours later her phone started getting spam calls. She thinks that there is a connection between the app and these calls.  Can you set my mind at ease !? Tristan, Petaluma

Dear Tristan: Two-step verification can be a good thing, particularly when you want to check your home security camera, look at your bank account online, or release funds, say for Venmo or Paypal. But, two step verification could be horrific if we are required to set up social media accounts with it, and these social companies do not have our solid trust.

We don’t know for sure that the Clubhouse app released or sold your spouse’s number. Incidentally, the full company name is AlphaExploration Co and as of February 2021, the audio chat program is only available on iPhone and as a beta test. I  took a look at their long privacy policy (never as much fun to read as the DearSmartphone column) and it was not so transparent, at least to a non-lawyer. 

BOring Through Legalize

Their privacy policy states that the Clubhouse app will collect a phone number, an email address, etc. and keep it all  secure. It then goes on to say it can  collect information about the people, accounts, and groups you are connected to…and they can… use that information to infer your preferences for content and features . Clubhouse won’t sell your personal data…. but can share it with vendors and service providers they work with (including advertising and CRM services). You get the drift, I hope.

That said, it seems unlikely that the spammy phone calls would begin right after your two-step authentication. It might have a been a total coincidence. That particular day, a telemarketing center, probably offshore, was spamming live accounts in a bank of stored phone exchanges. And, lots of retailers and organizations release our phone number that end up in someone else’s hands. 

BOring Through Settings

I wanted to share two screen shots from the Clubhouse app. You will find them on your iPhone by  going to SETTINGS>Clubhouse. Make sure to scroll way down until you see the logo for the Apple Store and beyond it there is an alphabetical listing of each app that is active on your phone. 

When you first download Clubhouse, each of these permissions will automatically be turned on. Essentially, the app gathers data over time about your usage to ‘personalize’ your content or ad feed. For privacy sake, turn them off. To my surprise ‘background app refresh’ is not something you want to leave on either, even on a trusty iPhone. Keep it off,  particularly for a brand new social media app says MacObserver. The refresh can send out a digital footprint with your phone number, location, email address, and more.   

It’s STILL Boring AND It’s Deep!

Hopefully your spouse will forgive you for signing up for Clubhouse with your number, and you will take the responsible step of deleting this phone number from its profile. Next time you need to provide a verification code to a third party you don’t know, consider having a simple, second phone that can send and receive SMS. Or, you can search online for web sites that promise you can get a two step verification code without having to hand over your phone.   But truly, we don’t know if they are safe either.

In closing, I just want to indulge you with one of my favorite cinema scenes- the name of the movie escapes me. In the denouement, the bad guys kidnap the wealthy businessman and hold him hostage. But it’s his smartphone they are after, not him. Once they possess his phone, they can impersonate his authority to openly send and receive the codes. The codes  transfer money and open safes. Enjoy the Clubhouse app but remember to think twice about what you talk and share.