When Apple released its first iSight webcam in 2003, the most notable design elements were its industrial aluminum tube housing and giant glass lens — iconic elements that completely disappeared when tinier iSights (later renamed FaceTime cameras) were built directly into later Macintosh computers. But one element that remained a part of every Mac camera was a small green indicator light that let you know when the camera was on. To this day, that little light hides right next to the camera above every MacBook’s screen, and if it’s on, you know the camera’s on even if you can’t see the live video feed in your current window.
I remember being a little concerned when the first FaceTime cameras debuted on iPhones without that little green light. There was ample room in the iPhone’s bezel for the light, but Apple just left it out, and similarly omitted it from iPads and iPod touches. In theory, a dedicated light wouldn’t be necessary: iOS could always display a colored status bar, video preview window, or other indicator that the camera was live. And for most of the last eight years, its absence on iOS hasn’t seemed to matter.
But over the last couple of weeks, I’ve felt that a little “now recording” light would have helped Apple avoid two of the most troubling privacy issues in recent memory. One breach, dubbed FacePalm, enabled iOS and macOS devices to start streaming FaceTime audio and video without express user consent. The other enabled a third-party tool called Glassbox to silently record iOS users’ screens for later analysis by app builders including Expedia, Hollister, and Hotels.com.
One might respond to this suggestion by noting that the “now recording” light currently found on Macs wouldn’t have fixed both of these privacy violations. The camera light doesn’t illuminate when only audio is being recorded, nor does it turn on when the screen’s being recorded. Moreover, the light does illuminate when video’s being recorded, yet didn’t make the FacePalm breach any easier to discover.
My answer would be to have one light become responsible for indicating all three types of recording: camera video, screen video, and audio. Critically, the light would need to be guaranteed to remain on as long as the recording was taking place, a reason that a standalone light like the Mac’s would be preferable to an on-screen indicator in a status bar.
If we’re talking about a standalone light, it could change colors to indicate what’s being recorded. Or if it’s just a dedicated status bar indicator, it could switch from solid to semi-solid to outline, or something similar.
Apple already does this with iOS location tracking. For years, it has used a solid diagonal arrowhead in the status bar to let you know whenever an app is tracking your location. A Location Services screen in settings lets you look back at whichever apps have tracked you over the past 24 hours, with the arrowhead changing from gray to purple to an outline depending on usage.
Technically, iOS already has on-screen indicators and mechanisms that are supposed to indicate that camera video and audio are being recorded, but they’ve become less conspicuous over time. Persistent and large top-of-screen bars have given way to pill-shaped buttons overlapping or replacing the clock. If you turn off the iPhone’s screen, the red pill for microphone recording can’t be seen, and there’s no guarantee that a third-party app or tool like Glassbox will flag that the screen is being recorded at all, apart from Apple’s threat of punishing violators.
While I have every reason to believe Apple will follow through on its promise to expel Glassbox-using apps from the App Store if they don’t either disclose or remove the screen recording functionality, that’s a bandage rather than a cure for a supposedly privacy-obsessive company. Who knows how long Glassbox has been silently recording users’ screens and enabling companies to capture personal data? How many private conversations or other situations were being quietly monitored over FaceTime before the FacePalm bug was patched?
That little green light on Macs strikes me as the right solution. When it’s off, you don’t see or think about it. If it’s on, you know what it means and can decide whether to keep it on or turn it off. Assuming that it’s always on when you’re being recorded, the fact that it’s on can instantly signal that someone is capable of watching or seeing you, a visual cue that would help both users and developers discover potential violations before they get out of hand.
Or we could keep using current solutions, which have proved inadequate to protect the basic camera, microphone, and screen privacy users should be able to count on. If we do, who knows when we’re going to discover the next egregious privacy violation, and how we’ll determine how long that one has been going on?