Can People See Your Webcam if You're on Public WiFi?

Prying eyes are primarily how people can snoop on your video conversations in public.
... Jochen Sand/Photodisc/Getty Images

Public Wi-Fi networks are not inherently unsafe for webcams. While there are ways that snoopers on the same network could try to break into your webcam's stream, as long as you use reputable software and use the same safe browsing habits you would anywhere else the greatest threat to your privacy is someone looking over your shoulder.

1 Packet Sniffing

Every computer on a wireless network can see all the data packets going between the router and the devices connected to it. Users generally aren't interested in what other people are doing, so their wireless adapters ignore all the data packets that aren't meant for them. Cyber criminals and technologically advanced mischief makers, however, can set their devices to collect rather than discard everyone else's data packets. This is called "packet sniffing."

2 Encrypted vs Unencrypyed

Packet sniffing can give someone full access to the contents of a data packet. This can include passwords, user names and even the footage from your video Web chat. If you are using your webcam over an encrypted connection then the sniffer can still have your data packets. However, the sniffer won't be able to see their contents since the individual data packets are encrypted. If your Web chat software doesn't use an encrypted connection with its servers then a packet sniffer could see your conversation.

3 Webcam Control

Packet sniffing lets hackers see the data you transmit over the network. If you aren't broadcasting a video feed, the only way that someone could see through your webcam is through special malware. If your computer has been infected, a hacker could be using the virus to make your device send him the images from your webcam. Even the best cyber criminals can't infect your computer with this type of malware simply by joining the same Wi-Fi network.

4 Webcams and Public WiFi

The most likely cause of someone seeing your webcam conversation while you are on public Wi-Fi is the low-tech method of looking at your screen. Most video-conferencing software uses secure connections to protect your privacy, and being infected with malware that could eavesdrop into your webcam requires the same kinds of unsafe Internet behaviors that would get your computer infected on your home network such as installing software from sources you don't know or trust, opening files from people you don't know and opening links in spam messages from people you don't know.

Micah McDunnigan has been writing on politics and technology since 2007. He has written technology pieces and political op-eds for a variety of student organizations and blogs. McDunnigan earned a Bachelor of Arts in international relations from the University of California, Davis.