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Private Eye

March 24, 2024

I joined a meeting with a vendor one day from my home office. I had a company laptop on a docking station. A docking station is just a device that you lock your laptop onto and then plug all peripherals, power cords, etc. into the docking station.

My company ordered me a 14-inch screen laptop. Too small for me. They also provided me with a 17-inch monitor and I had a 17-inch monitor of my own, so two monitors for work. Windows allows sharing so that your desktop is linked across the two screens and you can drag things between them. Finally, I had my personal laptop on my desk giving me a resource for things not work-related. I had a wireless keyboard and mouse so I did not need my work laptop on my desk at all. I attached the docking station to the knee-hole section of my desk. There is a Windows setting that allows you to close the laptop cover without going into sleep mode, so it was out of the way under the desk and I worked exclusively on the two extra monitor screens. And I joined a meeting one day from my home office.

On this day, I was greeted with a screenshot of two feet under a desk. Someone’s laptop camera was on and under their desk transmitting shots of their feet. Turns out it was me. Fortunately, I was always fussy about wearing pants to work. Even while working from home. I was not business formal or casual. More like picnic-ready at the very least. Even still, the sight of my feet unnerved me. (Yes, I was wearing socks!)

I am extremely private when it comes to online, especially when it comes to pictures. A lot of people included photographs on their email accounts. The common reasoning was that it was nice to put a face with a name. I used the old evolution picture… of several iterations of a monkey gradually transitioning into an upright man. I added a red circle around the middle monkey as though to identify myself in the picture. Everyone knew (or had heard of) my views on personal photographs and privacy. No one complained. Most had some idea of the face that went with the name. I had known most of them for decades or had been in meetings with them when I worked in the office. Weight had changed. The hairline had changed. People could still pick me out in a group. My discomfort with pictures was not an attempt to conceal my appearance. I am just extremely private about my online presence.

What bothered me about this episode was the fact that the video was being broadcast to everyone on the call with me. Of my feet. Nothing inappropriate. Just the fact that it happened with virtually NOTHING special required on my part. No switches set. No application run, at least none that I knew about. It was probably the application that enabled screen sharing between me and the group, necessary to conduct meetings, demonstrate things, etc. I had given no permission. It was sheer presumption.

Does this all matter to you? Maybe not. Maybe. It depends on your PC. It depends on the applications you use. It depends on a lot of things, many of which happen with no input from you. No permission. No conscious decision to share a live stream of you. Do you ever use your computer in an outfit you would not want shared on the Internet? In no outfit at all? In a place you might wish to remain unknown to others? Are there things going on in the room behind you that you would not want to share? That includes people who would not want their activities shared through a camera on YOUR PC. How about your children? Do they use your PC?

I have read stories of people whose PCs were hacked. Malware was put on their machines by miscreants or errant clicks on nefarious links. Someone who controls your PC also controls your camera, so you can surrender your private moments along with your personal information to people even without personally starting an app; Without clicking a link or opening an email.

People today are sometimes shockingly indifferent to who can see them. In a world of cell phones that serve also as cameras and camcorders, there is little presumption of privacy. Little objection to what might be captured intentionally or inadvertently. It is a bold new world and a lot of people accept it with a reflexive shrug. That indifference follows them to their other devices. I’m always aware, even knowing that I can’t protect myself against all intrusion. My laptop, however, I CAN control with a simple piece of masking tape.

I keep a piece of tape over the camera on my laptop. Before you ask, yes this prevents a FaceTime chat with someone you might actually want to see. To see you. In cases like this (I have no cases like this), you just remove the tape. It is a very inexpensive, non-technical solution to this issue.

I now have a smartphone. I use it to make phone calls. I have a Kindle Fire tablet that I use to read while I’m walking on my treadmill. These walks are significant chunks of time I can use productively by reading. I’m currently reading a huge book about Alexander Hamilton. I am always dressed when I’m reading so no one is going to see anything I would be ashamed to have seen in public, but I don’t tape the camera(s) in my Kindle or phone so I have to imagine there is always at least the possibility of intrusion.

There is a camera on most laptops and phones these days. Public windows for private eyes. You can protect yourself with a simple old-fashioned piece of masking tape.

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