Man guilty of "fixing" women's computers to spy on them via webcam

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Malware, Privacy

Image of webcam and image of plaster, munged together,, courtesy of ShutterstockA 30-year-old London man has been found guilty of fiddling with three women's computers so he could spy on them through their webcams.

After a week-long trial, which police said had followed a "complex and protracted investigation that involved detailed examination and evaluation of computer files", Andrew Meldrum was convicted of three counts of unauthorised access to computer material and two counts of voyeurism.

He'll be sentenced on 14 April 2014.

The police may have conducted a complex and protracted investigation, but the webcam shenanigans came to light after being triggered by an investigation conducted by one of Meldrum's victims.

Specifically, one of the victims found fishy software on her computer.

The woman, who was then 21, found an application that enabled the remote accessing of her webcam.

In November 2012, she contacted police.

The woman suspected Meldrum right off the bat, given that he'd recently "helped" her with her computer.

Word got around. The victim told another woman, who was then aged 23, about the tampering.

That woman, who also knew Meldrum, found remote access software on her computer, too, and she also told police.

The second victim gave a heads-up about the investigation to yet another woman who, she knew, was acquainted with Meldrum.

That third victim, aged 28, checked her computer. Gee, what a surprise - there was remote-access software on hers, too.

Meldrum had been spying on this third victim for quite some time, given that the software had likely been on this third woman's computer for around 15 months, police said.

Meldrum's far from the first lecher who's been convicted of drooling behind a tinkered-with webcam.

If you do a search on Naked Security for our coverage of webcams, you'll get an unsavory sampling of incidents involving hacked webcams.

For example, there was the sextortionist who hacked the webcam of Miss Teen USA 2013 to snap bedroom photos; webcam hackers who do a brisk business selling access to hacked webcams ($1 for a female "slave", and $1 for 100 male "slaves", as they're called); or even the inventive creep who used bogus error messages to convince women to bring their hacked webcams into the shower with them.

What's a spied-on person to do?

Keeping security software up to date is one good step.

If you suspect there's something weird about your webcam, it's best to unplug it, or put a bandage or sticky note over its lens, until you get it checked out.

But if you're like me, you're asking yourself this question: if I bring my computer to a computer technician, how do I know that they won't pull a Meldrum?

If you've got thoughts on that issue, please chime in, in the comments below.

At any rate, until we answer the "how do we trust the fixers to fix things without turning our computers into voyeurism tools", I guess I'll be sticking to black tape over my lens.

Images of webcam and plaster courtesy of Shutterstock.

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13 Responses to Man guilty of "fixing" women's computers to spy on them via webcam

  1. rakso75 · 543 days ago

    Regarding the advice given in last paragraph, long ago (around 10 years) a colleague came with hot photos (bikini and sexy dresses) of a starting-to-be-famous actress and model in Spain. He got them from his friend, technician in a computer repair centre.

    This technician got a laptop to repair, found the photos (yes, the computer belonged to that actress, no other crimes uncovered here), and copied them. Not posted to Internet though (at least, not by then) but shared among friends (and these also showing to their friends).

    So, unfortunately, not only you cannot trust what the fixers can put into your computer, also what they can copy (or delete...) from it.

  2. Anonymous · 542 days ago

    Being a computer technician I find it unfortunate that the "general" issue is untrust while it's true there are certainly some bad apples out there, we're not all to be painted with the same brushstroke, some of us actually do want to help. It is unfortunate that I ma untrusted by the actions of others, I make a concious effort not to snoop around, data backup is done soely at the request of the client and then only what THEY request, if they are unsure then yes I must take the time to peruse locations to find suspected files to back up. It's not my fault that a person puts their jpg files of their dog in c:\things I want to keep\dobbie loves socks\pictures of my dog.... I have to do my job to the best of my ability while being discreet. Having said that it's not always possible to NOT see pictures etc, since previews are active on most machines etc.

    • rakso75 · 542 days ago

      Most people are trustable, or at least, not thieves. Still, when walking in the street most of us will be careful with our wallet, purse, personal belongings... that does not mean that we think everybody walking around us is a pickpocketer (but some are). Better safe than sorry.

  3. TheNellster · 542 days ago

    Short of sitting watching over their shoulder - which they wouldn't allow at commercial premises, I'm sure - what can you do to stop the above happening? This actress had every right to have pictures of herself and her family, and she had every right to expect privacy.
    My hard disk is thoroughly encrypted but I guess I would have to pass on my password on occasions. Yes, I'd change it immediately after getting it back of course, but that doesn't help in the two scenarios above (actress and webcam software)

  4. Anonymous · 542 days ago

    You can disable webcams with black tape, or by turning them to face the wall when not in use (assuming they're separate units). What's harder is to disable the microphone (and be sure it's disabled), to keep successful attackers from listening in on whatever's going on in the room. Someone should make a model with hard switches on the outside that mechanically disable these things when not in use.

  5. Guy · 542 days ago

    At the very least, surely it's a good idea not to do things like undress in front of your webcam.

    All the spying software in the world won't help if:

    1) Your computer is off,
    2) Your computer is in another room.

    Just my 2¢.

  6. HL · 542 days ago

    Look for an established company. As one of the other techs stated, the majority of us work to not look at personal files and have the best interests of our clients and customers at heart. Additionally many of us have certifications, policies, procedures and are covered by insurance to protect the companies we work for.

    If someone decides to have a friend or neighbor take care of their technical issues because they that person has x amount of knowledge, then they get what they pay for.

  7. Fred · 542 days ago

    When are manufactures going to include a shutter and a physical on off switch on these things?????????????

  8. After purchasing my new computer, a report discussing this very issue appeared on the evening newscast. My husband immediately filled the small depression for the camera with glue. Permanently fixed! (I have no use for those cameras anyway.)

  9. Violet · 541 days ago

    The only people that have fixed my computer were close enough to me personally that I didn't care if they saw a naked pic. Or financial information which is even more personal, in my opinion!

    I don't use my web cam ever. I have no idea what the British Government plans to do with all the images it captured of people engaged in Yahoo chat. How many penis pictures can it possibly need?

    Mine is covered always. My daughter FaceTimes her dad and Skypes her friends.

    I think that govenments that spy should be put to trial just like the guys who have been convicted recently for spying on women. My privacy encompasses a lot more than just my skin. I'm more worried about government than the random IT guy.

  10. i have had these issues myself and yes tape or a sticky note works for awhile til you can get some help but you still have sound. You'd have to turn your volume down too. There's a lot of this type thing going on more than obviously people are aware of. It's a shame and there are legit brilliant people who fix computers out there who get hurt by these tales that strike fear in others who feel they have been a victim. Tougher punishments I think might help curb it a bit but people will look at the odds of getting caught and continue to spy on others in their bedrooms. They need to get a life of their own. They are seriously handicapped socially these creeps who betray our trust.

  11. Steve Noney · 534 days ago

    He was only trying to make sure nothing else went wrong with the computer. How else can he tell if he can't see it and hear what sounds it is making. Sheesh people, get your mind out of the gutter.

  12. watchmeundress · 532 days ago

    "But if you're like me, you're asking yourself this question: if I bring my computer to a computer technician, how do I know that they won't pull a Meldrum?"

    i'm not like you, i guess, because the obvious answer to that is: you don't.

    as we've seen, even people who have been vetted and given clearance for access to sensitive information (with possibly harsh penalties up to death for divulging such information) are not personally obliged to strictly obey the restrictions given to them. how do you vet voyeurism or a person's intrusive nature anyway? the credibility of a company is irrelevant. it could just mean that employees haven't been caught yet; it's not like they announce every data breach.

    in general:

    - never leave possibly embarrasing or sensitive data unencrypted AT ANY TIME. you never know when it'll break down and it'd be too late to lock down 'that file'. either do FDE or use an archiver--or both.

    the archiver (7zip, winrar) is good for even when you need to give access to the OS to a repairer; your eyes-off files should still be protected if you chose a strong password, and the person can happily browse your system files and photos of your toe fungus while you were on the beach.

    with FDE alone, you'd essentially be giving the tech access (if s/he isn't just wiping it) so it'd be as useless as not having the encryption in the first place--for this purpose anyway. you should use it if you're techy enough to get yourself out of technical jams.

    for webcams:

    - keep lids of notebooks shut when not in use. but even if you get hacked, when the lid is up, all they will see is your mug making all kinds of expressions. big deal.
    - for desktop webcams, turn them around or unplug them.
    - don't undress in front of your cam.
    - don't have sex in front of your cam. (i don't understand the things people do in front of their computer. all i do is read, write, and view things. i'm never in the viewing angle the camera happens to need to capture me undressing or having sex).

    wow, the longest response such an issue...sorry.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.