Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Who’s Watching You?


The other day I was in my Windows Control Panel trying to figure out why my closing sound wasn’t playing. (I did; something had changed my settings.) I happened to notice an icon for Flash Player. Huh. Out of curiosity, I opened it.

There I found a window labeled “Camera and Microphone Setting by Site.” Huh? Here was a list of 46 “Previously visited websites that have asked to use the camera or microphone …”. My camera? My microphone? What for?

The same message informed me that I could “allow or block the use of the camera and microphone by specific sites.” I could also “Remove a site to delete all settings and data for that site in Flash Player.” Player? What does a player have to do with my camera or microphone?

There’s a simple answer: Flash Player is what controls your video (from your camera and mic) as it goes out on the Internet. As in when you use Skype or other video phone programs.

But look at this (in Win7): Open the Control Panel, click on the Flash Player Icon to get the “Flash Player Settings Manager”. Select the tab “Camera and Microphone”. Open it and you’re asked to either “Ask me when a site wants to use the camera or microphone (recommended)” or “Block all sites from using the camera and microphone”.

Apparently, “ask me” is the default setting, inasmuch as I never opened this before. But . . . what does it mean this was the setting and I was NEVER asked? Exactly what happened when these 46 sites requested access? I don’t know.

Below these two options, is a large button labeled “Camera and Microphone Settings by Site . . .”. Click on this and you’ll see the window described above (mine showed 46 sites).

Flash Player for video phone is one thing, but what is this stuff? If you’re like me and have a web cam, you set it and leave the device on (which by the way includes its microphone). I don’t Skype very often, so I tend to ignore it.

What else am I ignoring that I shouldn’t? What else is concealed in the Control Panel that might be equally ominous? And why are these things concealed? Why would I—or anyone else—ever want a site to turn on the camera or microphone?

The other thing I don’t get is how much of this control of my devices is being orchestrated by Microsoft and how much by Adobe. Or are they in cahoots? Or is it the government? Or some other bigger brother?

Whatever. Meanwhile, I’m removing all sites, data, and settings, and changing my option to Block. Yet I have to ask—as you should—just why do these sites need any access to either my camera or my microphone? Ever?

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