Here's why Surface PCs don't have physical camera shutters

Surface Go 2 Camera Mics
Surface Go 2 Camera Mics (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

What you need to know

  • Microsoft technical fellow Stevie Bathiche recently explained why Surface devices don't have physical camera shutters.
  • The camera components are physically disconnected from the rest of the system, which should make them more secure.
  • For this reason, Microsoft relies on the white light next to the webcam to let you know when it's on.

In recent years, we've seen PC manufacturers start to adopt physical camera shutters and kill switches for webcams to keep them from being exploited by hackers when not in use. This privacy boost can be seen in laptops from both Lenovo and HP, but Microsoft's Surface devices have thus far avoided taking this approach. Speaking with PC World, Microsoft Technical Fellow and lead at its Applied Sciences Group, Stevie Bathiche, explained Microsoft's decision and the steps it has taken to make sure the camera remains secure.

In short, Microsoft relies on the LED next to the webcam to let you know its on. This works, Bathiche explains, because the camera system is physically disconnected from the rest of the system, which should make it much more difficult to exploit.

"The light is not software-controlled," Bathiche told PC World. "The light is controlled by the camera itself, which is detached from the system, which means if that light's on, it's sending data, period." Bathiche further explained that it's impossible for the camera to be on without the light also being on.

As for the microphone, Bathiche explained that Microsoft felt it was important to make it obvious when it's in use through an icon that appears on your taskbar. "That's one of the things that we felt was important for customers to understand when the microphone's on," Bathiche said.

Regardless, Microsoft feels the disconnected nature of the camera components, combines with a base of secure software and drivers, should be enough to thwart those with ill intentions.

Dan Thorp-Lancaster

Dan Thorp-Lancaster is the former Editor-in-Chief of Windows Central. He began working with Windows Central, Android Central, and iMore as a news writer in 2014 and is obsessed with tech of all sorts. You can follow Dan on Twitter @DthorpL and Instagram @heyitsdtl

  • Kinda "duh" huh? I mean you'd expect for companies to have come up with this approach long ago...
    Camera wants power? Yea... Power goes through LED first, then to the Camera - Privacy problem solved.
  • The problem with that is that most LEDs have a breakover voltage of only 0.7 volts, and tiny LEDs like this one aren't a whole lot higher than breakover. Maybe 5 volts. Would the camera have enough power to operate? I don't know. But, it's power source comes from a different bank that's independent of the rest of the computer. Sounds reliable to me🤷🏽‍♂️🤷🏽‍♂️🤷🏽‍♂️
  • The biggest issue here is a broken, or burned out, LED. Probably a good idea to pay attention to the self check upon wake, or boot.
  • Its been a very long time since I've been in the electronic game (I used to be a Electronic technician in the RAAF), but generally the you have a lower voltage control signal that turns on a transistor to supply power, it would make sense to me to have the LED in-line with the control signal.
    Added bonus (From a security point of view), if the LED burns outs , no control signal to turn on camera on.
  • Why dont put the LED + a resistor in parallelo with the camera. Very simple
  • Camera goes to led first.! In less that a nanosecond. Won't matter where in the circuit you put the led before or after. It's not a prompt, it's an indication of use.
  • Well, that's nice and all but you have to look at what? every few minutes, with a physical cover you look once to verify and never look again for that session.
  • If you're that paranoid, electrical tape is very inexpensive.
  • You can also look once at the light and see if it's on or off? And it's not like the light is hidden in some obscure place, it's literally in front of your face when you're looking at the screen.
  • Nobody cares about his justification. Once the light is on, it's too late. I don't want a switch either but to justify is ludacris. And When Teams and Windows crashes, the camera continues. It's ok to not like something.
  • Too late for what?
  • The government has already downloaded a jpeg of your butthole is what they mean
  • Hiswona has pics of Tarkus's butthole already for the government to download?
  • How difficult is it to incorporate a physical shutter? 😂
  • It's far from impossible but also far from trivial, particularly in an existing design that they would want to change as little as possible. Also, given that Microsoft want people to use their camera for Hello, adding a shutter would be counterproductive on that particular front.
  • Frankly, I don't care. Not about privacy, but about physical shutters. There is a great solution for this in every office and home. I have a post it on these cameras. Probably the most cost effective and cheapest solution there is. Don't need 1.000.000 tons of CO2 and $ billions of investment in this. Never cared about this really. Probably it also comes with less problems still than letting everyone know in a video-conferencing what kind of shutter hey need to remove before we can see them. Especially when you can't even hear them in the first place for some other reason.
  • I have no idea what "physically disconnected" means but the honest truth is that while I'm with Ron Wyden on government domestic spying, I'm not so worried about my webcam. Besides, you can do what my wife does and fold up and hang a business card over the camera if you felt the need to. (She has a Surface Laptop). I wonder what the recent evidence is on webcam hacking, particularly for newer devices? I do like how MS engineers have a platform to explain their tech and innovations.
  • It means that software isn't physically connected to the LED so they cannot hack in and shut it off. Anytime the power is being sent to operate the camera, then the LED is being powered too. Their is no software controlling it directly.
  • These are ridiculous arguments in the first place. If nefarious people have enough access on your PC to turn on your camera remotely, without you knowing about it, then a live camera-feed of you in a torn, taco-stained t-shirt, with a beer in your hand at 8 AM, while you are in a conference call with the CEO, is the LEAST of your problems. So you cover the camera up, they still have access to the MICROPHONES and all your files......