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Windows Hello uses your webcam even if you disabled your camera

Aug 24, 20155 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

The latest Windows 10 privacy freak out involves Windows Hello accessing your webcam even if you disabled your webcam in privacy settings.

The newest Windows 10 privacy freak out involves Windows Hello, which is supposed to be a convenient security feature turned on or off by selecting Settings > Accounts > Sign-in options. Windows Hello replaces traditional passwords with biometric recognition, allowing users to unlock their PC with a swipe or glance. You’ve likely seen Microsoft’s 30 second Windows 10 commercial which shows a toddler who “won’t have to obsess over security,” as she will be able to unlock Windows 10 with a smile.

You might think that people who setup Windows Hello to work with facial recognition surely realize their webcam must be used. Yet Softpedia noted that even if you disable your webcam completely for Windows 10 apps, Windows Hello will still use it for the biometric authentication.

While trying to determine how accurate Windows Hello is, The Australian’s Chris Griffith conducted a test using six pairs of identical twins. Windows Hello wasn’t fooled and kept each twin from logging in as their identical sibling.

Folks who do not realize that their webcam setting can be turned off, yet still be used by Windows Hello, should check out Microsoft’s Windows 10 camera and privacy FAQ. It states:

“If you choose to turn on Windows Hello, it will use your camera to sign you in even if your camera setting is turned off. If Windows Hello is turned off, it can’t access your camera.”

Windows 10 apps and services may ask for access to “three types of cameras” – color cameras, infrared cameras and depth cameras, according to Microsoft. So how do you know if your webcam is on? Microsoft wrote: “If your system comes with a camera light, the light will turn on when the camera is in use. If your system doesn’t have a camera light, a notification will appear letting you know when the camera turns on or off.” (Please note that if your machine has been infected with a RAT, the light won’t come on at all.)

Microsoft mentioned that there are “Classic Windows” apps which won’t appear under “Choose apps that can use your camera.” Softpedia credited Reddit user dioxol-5-yl for pointing out that even if you turned off the webcam in Windows 10 privacy options, there are Classic apps not listed that can still access your cam.

Microsoft defined Classic Windows apps as those which “use Windows Platform components such as .NET, COM, Win32, and others. You’d usually install one by downloading it from the Internet or with some type of media (such as a CD, DVD, or USB storage device). You’d launch one using an .EXE or .DLL file. They’re typically desktop apps (which run on your device) rather than web-based apps (which run in the cloud). You can also find Classic Windows applications in the Windows Store.”

Microsoft does not say those Classic Windows apps can access your camera even if you turned off your camera; in fact, the FAQ states: “If you turn the camera setting off, apps that use the camera won’t have access to it.” In Windows 10, Settings> Privacy > Camera is where you go to control which apps can access your webcam. If “let apps use my camera” is turned on, then it is on by default in apps that “need access to your camera to work as intended.”

If you have the camera enabled, but don’t have any option to “Choose apps that can use your camera,” then Microsoft explained “there is already a built-in control in the app. The Camera app only allows apps and services to use the camera each time you request it; for example, a messaging app would use the camera app to take a picture for you to share in an instant message.”

Cortana will wake Windows 10

“Windows Hello” may be used for biometric authentication, but “Hey Cortana” will add additional convenience to using that security feature.

If your PC has an Intel Skylake processor, you will be able to wake Windows with your voice thanks to a “Smart Sound” capability that will be available next year. “Millions” of other computers with Haswell and Broadwell chips are capable of staying in a low-power state known as Intel Ready Mode. At the Intel Developer Forum, Intel announced that both features will allow Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana to awaken your computer.

PC World explained how “wake on voice” will work:

Your PC may be in a standby state, but it will be “awake”—able to run virus scans, download email, and the like, but without needing to be fully powered on. When you say “Hey Cortana,” the system will fully power up and display the lock screen. At that point, you’ll be able to enter your password or PIN—or, if you have Windows Hello enabled—simply sit down at your desk and let your PC recognize you.

The “Hey Cortana” option will not be offered to people with AMD processors or older Intel chips that aren’t “always listening” for “Windows Hello.” Whether you regard that as a blessing or curse is up to you.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.