Is a Microwave a Camera? A Cybersecurity Expert Explains

"I think that that part of the comment is a non-technical person garbling something she heard but didn't really understand."

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Mar 13 2017, 9:10pm

Photo by Flickr User Gage Skidmore

In an interview on Sunday, Kellyanne Conway, fervid purveyor of alternative facts, seemed to suggest that President Donald Trump's microwave may have been turned into a camera by former President Obama during the 2016 presidential campaign.

"You can surveil people through their phones, through their—certainly through their television sets, any number of different ways," Conway told the Bergen Record, when asked about President Trump's baseless allegations that Obama had wiretapped the Trump campaign headquarters. "And microwaves that turn into cameras, et cetera. We know that is just a fact of modern life."

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This interesting speculation caused a great kerfuffle throughout the internet; even Mike Kelly, the reporter who conducted the video interview in which Conway made the now-infamous comment, seemed surprised. "Frankly, I assumed Conway would probably respond with a polite, 'no comment,'" he wrote afterwards. (Conway now claims that her comments were taken out of context.)

Spurious wiretapping claims aside, is there any scientific basis for Conway's statement? I tried to find out if the popular microwave manufacturers create products that can be manipulated into effective spying devices, and whether or not there are cameras in your microwaves, but none of them got back to me—except a representative of the Whirlpool Corporation, who told Broadly that they do "not have any comment at this time."

Steven Belloving, a computer science and cybersecurity expert from Columbia University, offered some insight into this most recent Conway fiasco. "I think that that part of the comment is a non-technical person garbling something she heard but didn't really understand," Belloving said. Speculating, he added, "Maybe [Conway was thinking of] something about how the Soviets beamed microwaves at the US embassy in Moscow back in the 1970s, or maybe it was about how terahertz waves or WiFi can see through walls. Or maybe it's about a 'smart,' connected, microwave oven."

Read more: 'It Was Like a Cult': Leaving the World of Online Conspiracy Theories

This is not the first time the more conspiratorially-minded have set their sights on microwaves. People have long believed that the waves emanating from our kitchen friendly rotational cubes can be used as a means of mind-control and suspend free will, while other, more benign conspiracists simply believe microwaves zap all the nutrients from the food they heat.

As to Conway's theory about microwave spy cameras, Belloving isn't familiar with the possibility. "I don't know of any direct way to turn microwaves into cameras. However, I don't think that part of it is particularly important. What's more important—and what she should know, as a graduate of a very good law school—is that she's making baseless claims on less than no evidence."

"The outrageous statement, to me," he added, referring to a subsequent interview Conway had done with CNN, "is, 'I'm not in the job of having evidence.'"