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Beware: MacBook Webcams can be used to covertly spy on people

When Miss Teen USA was remotely spied on via the built-in iSight camera on her laptop, the warning light indicating the camera was in use was never triggered.

The spying software hasn't proven to work on newer models of Macs, like this 2013 MacBook Air.
CBS Interactive

Imagine going about your daily life and then one day receiving photos of yourself from inside your home. Sound spooky? Well, this really happened to a woman named Cassidy Wolf, according to the Washington Post. And, to make matters worse, she was nude in the photos.

How did this happen?

Apparently, there's a way for hackers to spy on people via their iSight Webcams in older Apple MacBooks. Typically, when the camera is on a little light is also set off. But, in a newly discovered workaround, this light can be deactivated -- meaning unsuspecting victims have no clue they're being watched.

The Washington Post revealed this new research by Johns Hopkins computer scientist Stephen Checkoway, which shows how people can be spied on with MacBooks and iMacs released before 2008. Using proof-of-concept software, called Remote Administration Tool or RAT, Checkoway was able to reprogram the iSight camera's micro-controller chip so that the light doesn't turn on.

While it could be feasible to do this trick on newer Apple computers or laptops by other brands, it hasn't yet been proven possible.

In the case of Wolf, who was Miss Teen USA, the person spying on her was her high school classmate Jared Abrahams. The FBI was able to nab Abrahams, who pleaded guilty to extortion in October.

In another report by the Washington Post, the former assistant director of the FBI's Operational Technology Division Marcus Thomas said the FBI has been activating computer cameras without turning on the warning lights for years.

This is not the first time someone has been remotely spied on with a Webcam, but it is the first known time that it's been done without the warning light being triggered.