The day government started to ‘spy’ on me

Citizen digital editor Charles Cilliers

When you’ve just annoyed Donald Trump’s government, the last thing you want to see is a webcam light that refuses to switch off.

A recent report on how shamelessly our government spies on journalists was still stuck somewhere in the back of my head two Saturdays ago when I noticed the webcam light on my laptop was suddenly, inexplicably, on.

My heart skipped a beat.

I found myself turning the machine away and taking a photo of that little green light, which suddenly blazed in my imagination like the great Eye of Sauron scanning the wasted lands of Mordor.

Here’s that pic, for what it’s worth, which I forwarded to a few people on WhatsApp. They all promptly agreed that “they” were spying on me.


One of my colleagues, who has a plaster over his own webcam and cheerfully endures mockery from others about it, told me that the question should never be whether you’re being too paranoid, but if you’re paranoid enough.

The thing is, I had just been communicating with the spokesperson of the US Embassy in South Africa, and they weren’t happy with us over this story, which was going viral in the US.

You don’t want your webcam light coming on for no reason after you’ve annoyed the US government.

Another friend warned me to look out the window and see if I could spot the drone carrying the missile that was about to blow up my flat.

I tried rebooting my laptop. After a few seconds of relief at the light remaining off, it came right back on, and I was more freaked out than ever.

I gestured to my fiancée that she shouldn’t talk too loudly.

I whispered in her ear: “I think we’re being spied on.”

Part of me was almost secretly proud that someone out there even thought I was worthy of being placed under surveillance, though for the life of me I couldn’t imagine whose interests I was supposedly threatening.

Our cat then chose that exact moment to start dragging her own butt around on the carpet and leaving streaks.

“Oh f**k!” Margaret screamed. “The cat got some sh*t on her bottom! She’s smearing it everywhere!”

What followed was a few minutes of panic as we frantically tried to catch the poor distressed feline and save her dignity with a stack of unscented baby wipes.

There the laptop was, through it all, shining its menacing viridescent eye.

I could imagine the spy on the other side regretting his life choices and thinking about how he didn’t sign up to his particular security agency to go through years of training in merciless boot camps in the snow somewhere just to hear my overly pampered cat mewling pathetically while we chided her for being naughty and having a malfunctioning bottom.

Because this is the internet, research reveals that everything gets read more if you include a picture of a cat.

So here’s the cat.


Once the cat was released to go and hide under the bed for the rest of the day, I returned to the problem of the laptop. I taped over the webcam and tried to put it out of my mind. I tried and failed to figure out where the microphone was so I could tape over that too.

I then went off to play tennis and told everyone at The Wanderers how I’d become the latest journalist to fall victim to the surveillance state.

Of course, later, at home, when the light was still on even after I switched off our Wi-Fi, I had to admit that I had simply been an idiot. I’d somehow accidentally opened Facetime on my Macbook, and when you do that the light stays on.

Go figure.

One of our octogenarian tennis players at The Wanderers later called me a “stupid cabbage” when I told her what had happened the next Saturday. And rightly so.

It’s easy to laugh about it now, but there were a few hours there when I genuinely believed I was just the latest victim of a state that operates with rules that should surely be illegal.

And that isn’t quite so funny.

today in print

today in print