We sell laptops and phones with hardware kill switches at Purism, so we clearly have strong opinions about webcam security. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we raised an eyebrow when Apple posted an update to their support page titled “Don’t close your MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro with a cover over the camera” where they advise against using a webcam cover on MacBooks because:
If you close your Mac notebook with a camera cover installed, you might damage your display because the clearance between the display and keyboard is designed to very tight tolerances. Covering the built-in camera might also interfere with the ambient light sensor and prevent features like automatic brightness and True Tone from working. As an alternative to a camera cover, use the camera indicator light to determine if your camera is active, and decide which apps can use your camera in System Preferences.
This support page addition was picked up in the media and as some media outlets have reported, apparently enough customers have damaged their screen by closing it with a webcam cover that the issue justified this public guidance.
One on hand it’s encouraging to see that enough people are concerned about their privacy, and webcam covers are so ubiquitous, that it’s an issue worthy of its own support page. What’s discouraging is Apple’s security advice on the issue, which is to rely on MacOS webcam software permissions to restrict what apps can access the webcam and combine that with a hard-wired green LED that should always turn on when the webcam is in use. While this advice is consistent with Apple’s overall “just trust us” approach to security, it completely misses the point of why people used webcam covers to begin with: to claw back the tiniest bit of control over their privacy from hardware and software companies.
It’s this issue of control that I want to discuss in this post. Apple and Purism take completely different approaches to security. Apple’s approach is to require customers to hand over all trust and control to Apple and depend upon Apple for all of their security. Purism’s approach is to give customers control over their own computers and provide security without depending upon Purism. Webcam security is a great lens through which to view these completely opposite approaches.