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Viral TikTok claims you can be seen on Zoom even with your mic and camera off – but you can’t

Numerous indicators such as the MacBook webcam light, as well as Zoom’s privacy policy, suggest the video is fake

Adam Smith
Friday 12 February 2021 17:23 GMT
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(AFP via Getty Images)
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Viral videos on TikTok appear to falsely suggest that hosts in videoconferencing software Zoom are able to hear and see them while the microphone and camera are disabled.

The videos, uploaded by the user “shokshooter” (otherwise known as Mic Mute Man) show him in a Zoom class. He holds up signs, playing music, and asking questions while the camera and video are ostensibly off.

In many videos, the user highlights the red line through a microphone or camera symbols in the corner. The purported teacher in the video then responds.

It is unclear who the individual or teacher is, what academic institution they attend, or who their classmates are as only their initials are shown in the video and their cameras are disabled.

While the videos appear authentic, there are a few giveaways that reveal that the videos are probably faked - despite such disinformation garnering 1.4M subscribers on the viral video platform.

The first is that the user has a MacBook computer, which has a camera indicator hard-wired into the webcam that turns green when it is active.

This has not always been the case; MacBooks released prior to 2008 could have the camera indicator circumvented by software. However, this is not possible in modern MacBooks - including the devices released in 2016 and later which feature the digital touch bar, as shown in the user’s video.

“The hardware team tied the LED to a hardware signal from the sensor”, a former Apple engineer told technology writer John Gruber in response to previous concerns about webcam privacy.

“If the (I believe) vertical sync was active, the LED would light up. There is NO firmware control to disable/enable the LED. The actual firmware is indeed flashable, but the part is not a generic part and there are mechanisms in place to verify the image being flashed.

“So, no, I don’t believe that malware could be installed to enable the camera without lighting the LED. My concern would be a situation where a frame is captured so the LED is lit only for a very brief period of time.”

It is also not possible that the host - the purported teacher - could enable the webcam without the student’s knowledge, or against their will.

web page on Zoom’s Help Center states: “As the host or co-host in a meeting, you can manage your participants, including muting and unmuting participants to manage background noise and distractions. All participants can also mute or unmute themselves, unless the host has prevented them from unmuting.

Due to privacy and security reasons, the host cannot unmute other participants without their consent. The host can either use the Ask All to Unmute option, which will prompt every user to unmute themselves, or can schedule the meeting with Request permission to unmute participants enabled, which will prompt the participants for pre-approval to be unmuted by the host.”

Hosts can mute participants involuntarily, but does not allow them to unmute them involuntarily. Matt Nagel, a spokesperson for Zoom, told Snopes that it is “ unfortunate that people appear to be fabricating video footage and spreading misinformation to the contrary”.

Zoom “do[es] not offer the ability, or a separate plan, other software, or any other means to secretly unmute and listen to others.”

The Independent has reached out to “shokshooter” via TikTok and Instagram, where he holds another account posting similar content, but the user did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.

It is likely that the videos are simply edited to suggest that Zoom’s privacy functions do not work, or that the content playing is a video while the camera is disabled, but have nevertheless left viewers feeling concerned.

“I am so stressed out to know my teacher can see and hear me,” one user commented. “Can’t he sue for invasion of privacy?”, another asked.

The Independent has also contacted TikTok and Zoom for comment.

Disinformation on various subjects also spreads rapidly on TikTok; content on personal finance TikTok, also known as #FinTok or #StockTok, “perpetuates financial myths, scams, and dangerously misleading information”, Vox reports.

Numerous false claims about tax breaks, the federal reserve, MPI accounts, and more have spread on the platform.

TikTok also had to take steps to stop antisemitic content, as well as COVID-19 disinformation, from spreading on the platform, albeit with mixed success.

In December 2020, the video-sharing app introduced a new tool to detect content relating to the Covid-19 vaccine. Content about the vaccine will come with a banner message attached, stating: “Learn more about Covid-19 vaccines”, referring users to an in-app information hub.

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