PSA: Be Careful If You’re Using a Camera Cover on Your MacBook

Broken 16 inch MacBook from webcam cover Credit: koolbe / Reddit
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With the rise of malware and spyware on modern MacBooks, many users are understandably concerned about what hackers could be seeing through the built-in camera on their laptops, and while Apple’s MacBooks offer more security in this regard than many Windows PCs, they’re by no means invulnerable to these kinds of problems, as we saw with last year’s major Zoom vulnerability.

So if you’re using a device to cover the camera on your MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, we can’t say we blame you, but you might want to be careful with what you use and how you handle it to avoid causing expensive damage to your even more expensive MacBook.

A new support document recently published by Apple is now specifically cautioning users of all MacBook models against closing their lids when they have a cover over the camera, noting that it could damage the display. Apple notes that its MacBooks are designed with “very tight tolerances,” and aren’t intended to provide room for anything between the display and the keyboard.

What’s Are the Risks?

The fact that Apple has published a support document suggests that more than a few users have tried this, and Apple support engineers have likely seen the results.

A Reddit user koolbe actually shared their particular tale of woe from about six month ago when they cracked the screen of their “spec’d up Macbook Pro 16,” despite only adding a “super thin” webcam cover.

I take it out on Christmas Day and lo-and behold, the laptop is cracked right under the webcam. The computer is basically unusable because the display takes a few minutes to refresh (contents of the screen to change).

Reddit user koolbe

While the user in question was able to get their MacBook Pro covered under AppleCare+ as one of their “accidental damage” incidents, the technician noted that without AppleCare+ the repair would have cost $1,970 CAD (~$1,500 USD).

The damage is clearly caused by pressure being exerted on the screen when the lid is closed with even a small obstruction in between it and the rest of the MacBook. In koolbe’s case, the problem was unique to their new 16-inch MacBook Pro, as they noted that an older 13-inch 2015 MacBook Pro was fine with the same sort of webcam cover, however that doesn’t mean that older models are immune to this kind of damage, but its easy to see how the newer 16-inch would be with its thinner bezels.

Other Potential Problems

In addition to the obvious display damage, Apple also adds that covering the built-in camera can also interfere with the ambient light sensor, which would prevent other features like automatic brightness control and True Tone from working properly.

Apple suggests that users avoid covering their cameras at all and simply rely on the green indicator light to determine when the camera is active, as well as using security features in modern macOS versions to restrict access to the camera in system preferences.

For users that absolutely must cover their cameras, such as when it’s mandated in a work environment, Apple suggests using a camera cover that is “not thicker than an average piece of printer paper (0.1mm)” and doesn’t leave a sticky residue.

Isn’t It Risky to Leave My Camera Uncovered?

As we mentioned earlier, modern MacBooks are considerably more secure than many other laptops, but they’re definitely not invulnerable to malware, spyware, or other security flaws that could allow your camera to be inadvertently activated.

If your Mac is equipped with Apple’s T2 security chip, it’s not possible for malware to bypass the green LED indicator that comes on when activating the camera, so you’ll know when it’s on, but that’s not always helpful, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, if you’re in a private situation, by the time you notice the green LED, it’s too late, as the camera is already on. In fact, many users report keeping their cameras covered not out of a fear of spyware, but simply because they use video conferencing apps and can’t trust that the camera won’t be inadvertently activated during a meeting when they don’t really want their coworkers to see them at all.

The other potential risk is that even though the LED has to illuminate every time the camera is activated, it’s possible for malware and spyware to take still photographs, in which case the LED will only blink very briefly as a photograph is taken — too short of a time for you to notice unless you happen to be looking right at it or you’re in a darkened room.

So by all means if you’re concerned about people seeing what you’re doing through your camera, you can still cover up your MacBook camera, but just be sure to either do it with something that’s paper-thin or to always remove the cover before closing the lid of your MacBook.

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