Privacy and video: are you revealing too much?

12 May 2020

Why it pays to keep your personal life out of the picture

Video call platforms have never had it so good. With lockdown creating the perfect conditions for them to flourish, we are calling friends, family, and colleagues with a new kind of urgency. We’re all looking for innovative ways to entertain ourselves, giving rise not just to virtual house parties, but a plethora of memes, short videos, and live streaming. But are we thinking enough about what we are revealing in these videos?

Recent reports suggest that Zoom now provides over 200 million calls worldwide a day. Zoom is just one provider, but this shows that it’s rich pickings for fraudsters who mine calls for personal or sensitive information, intending to use it maliciously.

With the media now using video calls for news appearances and other large-scale broadcasts such as day time chat shows, politicians and celebrities are learning, (in some cases the hard way), that having their homes and personal effects on show, comes with considerable risk.

Sharing is not always caring

It’s not just the rich and famous who could get caught out this way – it applies to all of us, whether we’re using video technology for work purposes or sharing details of our lives with friends and family. While you would be right to worry about a cluttered desk making you look unprofessional on a work call, there is also a more significant issue at stake. Small details can provide enough insight for a fraudster to kick start an investigation using public sources and records for additional information.

Social media accounts can also provide photographs, biographical data, names of family members, and geotagged locations. While much of this information may seem benign in isolation, fraudsters will slot it together to build a profile - much like putting the pieces together in a puzzle.

The more information they have, the more likely it is that they will succeed in their criminal activity.

Recent enthusiasm for sharing pictures of our home-working setups on social media has also led to a spate of ill-advised posts, featuring confidential information on screens and desks for all to see. This kind of oversharing is almost certainly accidental – but the risk is still the same.

The ‘Bomb’

Another recent phenomenon is software created by hackers which actively looks for open Zoom meetings. Details of these meetings are then shared on forums and social media, allowing fraudsters to ‘bomb’ the meeting or record sensitive information. It’s not always immediately apparent when you have an uninvited guest joining your call, and it can happen whether you’re using video for social or professional purposes.

How to stay safe

There are some straightforward measures you can take to avoid playing directly into the hands of cyber criminals. Secure your video calls by using a password and don’t share your user ID on social media. If posting pictures of your home on social media, you should always check to make sure there are no documents or any other sensitive items lying around, paying particular attention to screens, desks, and bookcases.

The same goes for using video, whether it’s for calls, media broadcasts, or on social media: give away as little as possible. Remove personal items from view and avoid having bookcases or other things (even those which may seem innocuous), like certificates and photographs in the background.

It’s worth remembering that standard search functionality is often all that’s needed for fraudsters to identify details in your home. For example, you can reverse-search images by uploading them to google, which makes finding out the location of a photo hanging on your wall, surprisingly easy. Fraudsters will use this kind of information to locate people, in addition to assets such as property and yachts as well.

Fortunately, some video call systems already have the option to ‘hide’ your home and personal effects from prying eyes. A neutral or plain background is always the safest option, so it’s worth checking your settings before your next call.

Prevention is better than cure

The vast majority of us will barely even consider what we’re doing when posting a video on social media or joining a video call. But we would do well to reconsider this approach. Displaying personal information or items online will put you at risk not just of appearing unprofessional, it may make you a target for fraud as well.

With social distancing measures still in place and remote working a necessity for the foreseeable future, vigilance is the surest way to reduce your chances of getting caught out. The question is, once lockdown ends, will you regret the information you’ve divulged?

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About the Author

Peter Yapp


Peter started his career in investigation and has been a leader in the field of computer forensics for nearly three decades

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