Apple’s newest MacBooks include a new feature that makes it far more difficult for hackers or spies to eavesdrop on your microphone.
Buried in Apple’s latest range of MacBooks — including the MacBook Pro out earlier this year and the just-announced MacBook Air — is the new T2 security chip, which helps protect the device’s encryption keys, storage, fingerprint data and secure boot features.
Little was known about the chip until today. According to its newest published security guide, the chip comes with a hardware microphone disconnect feature that physically cuts the device’s microphone from the rest of the hardware whenever the lid is closed.
“This disconnect is implemented in hardware alone, and therefore prevents any software, even with root or kernel privileges in macOS, and even the software on the T2 chip, from engaging the microphone when the lid is closed,” said the support guide.
The camera isn’t disconnected, however, because its “field of view is completely obstructed with the lid closed.”
Apple said the new feature adds a “never before seen” level of security for its Macs, without being quite so blunt as to say: Macs get malware too.
The emerging threat of hackers tapping into webcams became a reality years ago when remote administration tools (“RATs”) were used by snoopers to remotely spy on their targets using their in-built laptop camera. That in part led to the emergence of users putting sticky-notes over their webcam lens. It was thought that because Apple’s webcams have a hardware-connected light, making it near-impossible to activate the webcam without a user’s knowledge, Macs were largely immune from webcam snooping attacks. But last year, security researcher Patrick Wardle uncovered the Fruitfly malware that busted this myth wide open.
The paranoia is real. British intelligence agency GCHQ spent years tapping into webcams as part of its “Optic Nerve” program. Even Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg reportedly tapes over his webcam — and his MacBook’s microphone — even though experts say that tape wouldn’t do much to prevent an audio eavesdropper.
Although there are tools like Oversight, an app that Wardle built, that alert a user when their webcam or microphone are activated, there’s little to prevent a sophisticated malware from silently using a MacBook’s microphone to listen to its surroundings.
But cutting off the microphone from a MacBook’s hardware when the lid is shut will make it far more difficult for dormant devices to spy on their owners.