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.”

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. 

Troubleshoot Email Addresses

Phone is sending me to “dead” emails
. Why?

A  cartoon graphic of character holding a big envelope. What direction to send it? Originally from a story about Microsoft and its servers in Ireland.
Troubleshoot email addresses? Old and new! Graphic credit: PC Mag (2014)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Please help troubleshoot my email addresses!  I mostly use my phone now instead of the computer to read and send email. The phone is continually sending email to my friends at an older address, and since they have had a few different addresses, it doesn’t get to them. My friends tell me they disabled these email accounts years ago.  How do I sort this out?  Elena, Los Angeles.

Dear Elena: Not to be nostalgic but with snail mail we fill out a form at the post office when we plan to change homes. Then, for the next twelve months the flyers, bills, and cards get forwarded to our new address. How simple is that! 

As a first step, remind your friends about closing old accounts.  Hopefully they did not use the snail mail method to forward  email to a new site. The reason is that autoresponders and e-messages, including the spammy ones, all get sent to the new inbox. Forwarding email could make them a nefarious source that inadvertently and accidentally perpetuates spam!

But the second ‘ask’ is whether they can successfully shut down these older accounts?  Your friends may not be checking those accounts or paying for them anymore but here’s the rub: They need a password to get into discarded accounts to delete them. If it’s been some time since the account was active, they may no longer have those details. 

Too many Clouds today?

But, there is one more thing to consider- the email sites were closed and the old addresses no longer exist. In snail mail terms, your friends burned down the house when they left.  Yet your email still points there. The phone might be pulling down the contact list from different servers you access, such as  the  iCloud, the Microsoft Exchange or Google.  When the house burned down the contact information stayed put and the server still points to the smoldering ruins. While it is fairly easy to clean up duplicate contacts stored on an iPhone, there are some more places to consider (read these). But begin here:  has your current list of contacts  been saved to one source, the iCloud, for example, but when you use your smartphone, it accesses older lists say on Google or Outlook?

Respectively yours….

Your question brings a delightful excursion for DearSmartphone, because digital etiquette and digital hygiene are so rich in content. I am implicated here, as I have used at least two different email accounts for readers. The active one is: dearsmartphone@outlook.com but there is a different one (not in regular use) at gmail.

With the communications issue you describe it’s nearly impossible to figure out if the update needs to rest with the sender, the receiver….or in- between?!  It’s quite unlike a physical street address. Keep in mind that the storage of contact info. can be in different places ; moreover, when we search email providers, the rules are in flux. The platforms we preferred in 2000, when we first entered these contacts, may no longer conform with the rules/ privacy of 2021.

Most of all,  it’s hard to back-out information- we just keep adding to it. The cyber trail we all leave behind is reminiscent of outer space. We send up more and more vehicles, and after they complete their mission they jettison debris and space trash that continue to stay in orbit.