Don’t Close Your MacBook with a Webcam Cover Attached
Apple has published a support article that warns against closing the lid of a MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro if you have a webcam cover installed because it could cause expensive damage to your computer. That should be obvious to anyone who owns one of these Macs because the clearance between the screen and keyboard is so tight that the keys often leave an impression on the screen. However, it was apparently enough of a problem that Apple felt compelled to publish a support document on the topic. In short, never close your laptop screen on anything much thicker than a piece of paper or you’ll almost certainly damage the screen.
Such webcam covers became popular after Edward Snowden’s revelations that government agencies could tap into a webcam without your knowledge (see “Keeping Up with the Snoops,” 10 December 2013). Apple recommends against using a hardware cover, and instead suggests that you look for the green webcam indicator light, noting that the webcam cannot turn on without activating the indicator light. However, that isn’t entirely satisfactory since users have no way of knowing if malicious software could override the indicator light. Lenovo solved this problem handily in its ThinkPad line with the ThinkShutter, a built-in physical webcam shutter. It’s hard to imagine Apple building such a physical shutter into its laptops, but it’s equally hard to see people trusting Apple’s claim that the indicator light can’t be hacked in software.
If I understand it correctly, the green light is hardware connected (in series) to the camera making it impossible to supply power to the camera without powering the light. That of course does not exclude malicious software from turning on the camera when you’re not looking.
Another thing the article states is that a camera cover can interfere with the ambient light sensor that is used for automatic brightness and true tone.
However, if you’re really unsure about someone hacking the camera and really want to cover it with one of those sliding covers, you might be able to prevent issue with the screen by putting a small rubber sticker, the same thickness as the the camera cover, on each of the two top corners of the screen. That should keep enough distance between the screen and body for the camera cover. Of course this means the screen never fully closes and I don’t know if this can cause other issues. I have not tried it myself, so be careful if you want to experiment with this idea.
That’s my understanding, too, but never underestimate how clever hackers can be. If I were concerned enough about the webcam I’d slap a small piece of electrical tape over it. The built-in camera is junk anyway.
Well, the best camera is the one you have with you
It should work to increase the clearance. The important question will then be if the added distance will prevent the Hall effect sensor on the motherboard from detecting a lid-closure. I suspect the answer to this will vary from model to model.
Regarding the usefulness of covering the camera, I question it. Yes, a cover can keep others from seeing you if malware manages to turn the camera on, but I think that kind of “protection” is putting a plastic bandage over a gunshot wound.
In order for any of these exploits to work, your computer needs to have been previously infected with malware. If that is the case, then the malware can cause a lot more damage than just recording video from your camera. It can capture audio (where there is no in-use light). It can share your screen with third parties. It can install back-door logins. It can read/download/modify/erase/encrypt all your files. It can wipe your hard drive or change passwords to lock you out of your own account.
Given the hundreds of different ways you can be attacked once there is an active malware infection, I don’t think a sticker over the camera matters. You need to do what it takes to prevent the infection in the first place, and then a camera cover will be irrelevant.
Fortunately, normal common-sense security measures should be sufficient for most people. A quick (but not comprehensive) list includes:
Black tape (like electrical tape) will do the trick without breaking anything.
I trust Apple did the green light thing right, but I also know a good malicious actor would take very brief stills so that you’d likely miss the few ms where that green light went on.
Black tape or not, I’d be more worried about the microphone. I don’t do anything in front of my computer you couldn’t see, but I do talk about things at my computer not everybody should hear.
If your computer has a T2 chip, it can cut off the microphone at the hardware level!
I’ll say: the risk of webcam exploits on the Mac is pretty small. Damaging your screen is a much larger risk. I wouldn’t put any sort of spacer between the keyboard and lid, because that’s just asking for problems.
I’d really like a mechanical switch to actually disconnect it. A Mac’s camera (at least the one in my 2011 MacBook Air) is a USB device. It would be trivially simple to put a switch on its power line so you can make it go away completely when you’re not using it.
I’m not sure how the analog audio (microphone/headphone) is connected, but it shouldn’t be hard to switch that as well.
But that’s just so 1980’s. Can’t have that, now can we?
How about a thin vinyl keyboard cover? It does leave marks on the glass screen but they can be cleaned off with a good screen cleaner like Whoosh.
Of course it is possible my Mac had the bulding battery problem for a long time, which exerts pressure upwards and downwards.
By the time I took it to the shop it had bloated enough to bend the bottom of the case. The case screws were REALLY holding the bottom on against the force of the bulging batteries.
That is indeed great for when your MBP is closed. But what I was thinking about is the fact that unlike the webcam, the microphone has no green light to show it’s recording me (while the MBP is on and open).
I don’t disagree with your advice and I myself don’t have any kind of spacer. But it is true that Apple itself puts a protective foam sheet in between lid and KB when they ship the device. So we know that a ~ 0.5 mm thick soft item can safely be put in there.
I agree…anything like a piece of electrical tape, a post it note or a similar thickness is too thin to cause any problem IMO.
A co-worker of mine got confirmation from an Apple engineer friend that the green LED is hardwired into the camera circuit. It’s physically impossible to activate the camera without also activating that LED.
That said, @Simon’s comment about “very brief stills” is perfectly valid.
To address those concerns, have a look at Objective Development’s MicroSnitch.
This little utility monitors audio and video I/O on your Mac and summons a notification whenever one of the devices becomes active or inactive. It also logs such events, so you know if an application accessed microphones and/or cameras while you were away from your computer.
I’ve been using this software for a long time, and it works amazingly well. At $3.99, that’s not a lot of money for a lot of peace-of-mind.
While appreciating Apple’s note, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to come up with that conclusion alone.
There are, however, sticky sliding covers which are very small and very thin so they fit well into the very thin bezel of the MBP16, and while still protruding above the surface of the glass, they do not add more than a quarter of a millimeter to the distance between the glass and the metal surface when the lid is closed. I have found that there is more than enough flex in the glass and cover to accommodate that.
As for the Lenovo solution of a built-in slider - there’s a catch to that: The camera is very thin as it is. Thin means poor quality. “Camera” means “room”, and that’s the distance between the lens and the image sensor. Thinner cameras means shorter distance which means poorer quality. That’s not the full scientific story behind photography but sufficient for this discussion. When you add the slider that means there is less room for the camera which means an even thinner camera and thus - poorer quality. If they make it much thinner they quality might be so bad that you won’t even need a cover anyway.
On a side note, with COVID-19 travel bans my laptop had become a desktop and I haven’t closed the lid and packed my MBP for about 5 months so the problem is self-mitigated until travel is resumed…
A post-it works perfectly for me. I just need to remove it for zooms.
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