As we race to accommodate a hopefully temporary shift in society from in-person to video meetings, one of the platforms that has exploded is Zoom. There are a lot of advantages to the platform and, if done right, it could become a real asset to public meetings—even after life resumes.
But Zoom wasn’t originally designed for public meetings; it was used more inside companies where features like screen-sharing are an advantage, not a disadvantage.
Unfortunately there is a whole culture of Zoom bombers, far ahead of the hosts and public officials. That was the unfortunate lesson that the Davis City Council learned when users took advantage of open share screens and scrawled, for instance, the N-word, or profanity, and in some cases pornographic images.
The city figured out that they could lock down the share screen, but they didn’t figure out how to screen public commenters who jumped in with the N-word, profanity and sexually graphic statements designed to shock and disrupt.
We are not alone. The NY Times last week ran an article, noting that “the trolls of the internet are under quarantine, too, and they’re looking for Zooms to disrupt.
“They are jumping into public Zoom calls and using the platform’s screen-sharing feature to project graphic content to unwitting conference participants, forcing hosts to shut down their events.”
On Tuesday, the Times noted, “Chipotle was forced to end a public Zoom chat that the brand had co-hosted with the musician Lauv after one participant began broadcasting pornography to hundreds of attendees.”
Sexually graphic images are annoying and, of course, inappropriate. The racism is flat out disturbing.
Yesterday, the social justice group Color of Change put out a petition, “Demand that Zoom immediately create a solution to protect its users from racist cyber attacks!”
Dr. Dennis Johnson, an African American, first-generation college graduate from Chicago, on March 26 got to defend his dissertation for his doctorate in education at Long Beach State.
He notes, “Due to the social distancing during the Coronavirus pandemic, the University uses Zoom Video Conferencing for these types of presentations. The chair of my committee made the introductions and I started presenting. I spent the first 10 minutes gliding through my presentation. It was truly a moment I felt ready for.”
He noticed on his screen a “red mark on my computer.”
As he describes, “For a brief second I thought someone else was sharing their screen at the same time as mine, but then more red marks appeared. Soon, more marks were made to create the shape of a penis. I stopped my presentation and asked my zoom facilitator if they could remove the marks.”
It got worse. Soon the letters N-I-G… were written on the screen, followed by pictures and videos of pornography.
He writes, “Like everyone else, I was shocked. My university’s technology personnel and college department members began to scramble. They were trying to figure out what was going on and how to take the cyberattacker out of the Zoom meeting.”
He apologized for what happened to the audience and continued with his presentation as though nothing had happened.
When he was done, his committee said, “Congratulations Dr. Dennis Johnson.”
Unfortunately, he said, “I couldn’t enjoy the moment.”
He writes, “Truth be told, no matter how much I brushed it off, my moment had been taken and there was nothing I could do about to get it back. On one of my most remarkable moments of my life, I was called a “n****r.” My mother, grandmother, sister, spouse and many others were shown images of pornography.”
On Zoom’s website, the only help offered is an article on “How to Keep the Party Crashers from Crashing Your Zoom Event.”
“That is a slap in the face to me,” he wrote. “I’ve never been to a party where I was called a n****r. These are racist cyber attacks; not innocent party crashers just stopping by to say hey.”
He writes: “I never want anyone to experience what happened to me. Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened. Over the past few weeks, Black people have been targeted disproportionately on Zoom by trolls who have yelled ‘n****r’ during children’s storytimes and professor’s open office hours. The University of Southern California even issued an email to professors warning them that Zoom classes had been disrupted by ‘racist and vile language.’”
Dr. Johnson writes: “It’s time for Zoom to create a real solution to this problem!”
Unfortunately this is becoming commonplace.
ABC News yesterday reported that the FBI is now warning of potential hijacks of videoconferencing applications.
They highlighted two incidents in Massachusetts.
“In late March 2020, a Massachusetts-based high school reported that while a teacher was conducting an online class using the teleconferencing software Zoom, an unidentified individual(s) dialed into the classroom. This individual yelled a profanity and then shouted the teacher’s home address in the middle of instruction,” a release from the Boston FBI Field Office said. “A second Massachusetts-based school reported a Zoom meeting being accessed by an unidentified individual.”
The statement continued, “In this incident, the individual was visible on the video camera and displayed swastika tattoos.”
BBC News in a story today highlighted a case where a rabbi and his Jewish congregation had their services interrupted, their account hijacked with anti-Semitic abuse.
A BBC employee happened to be attending the meeting at a London synagogue and it appears one person filled up the right-hand side of the screen with “vile abuse.”
“The rabbi didn’t realise what was going on until one of the congregants texted him. By then lots of people had taken their children offline,” the BBC was told.
“It was terrifying at what is a really terrifying time anyway,” the BBC employee added.
“Communities advertising meetings like this are exposing themselves to all kinds of risks,” said the BBC employee.
The synagogue’s rabbi described the incident as being an “intrusive violation,” and said it had been reported to the Community Security Trust and police.
“One of the founding ideals of our community is that we should welcome those who wish to join us for prayer, ” he said in a statement.
“We recognise that many Jewish households are not members of synagogues, or are members of communities that are not able to offer online services. We want to assure them that they are still welcome to pray and study with us.
“It is deeply upsetting that at such a difficult period we are faced with additional challenges like these. We will be keeping the security of our online provision under review through the weeks ahead.”
Zoom apparently told ABC News that people should report incidents on their website and they will take appropriate action.
“We take the security of Zoom meetings seriously and we are deeply upset to hear about the incidents involving this type of attack. For those hosting large, public group meetings, we strongly encourage hosts to review their settings and confirm that only the host can share their screen,” a Zoom spokesperson said in a statement.
“For those hosting private meetings, password protections are on by default and we recommend that users keep those protections on to prevent uninvited users from joining,” the statement said.
But, let’s be honest, you have the FBI investigating some of these incidents in the states and the police are investigating in London. But it is unclear what Zoom can do that law enforcement can’t do.
The general recommendation makes sense—adjust the settings so only the host can share their screen and create a password to prevent uninvited guests.
For the city council, if they choose to allow public comments, they might have a general invite to the public—where the public, if they wish to participate on Zoom as opposed to watching the streaming feed, will have to get a password from city staff. That might avoid some of the problems.
In fairness to Zoom, again, their platform was not designed for this purpose and many have gravitated toward it because of restrictions due to coronavirus.
That said, they have definitely reaped a lot of benefit from this condition and, therefore, they have a responsibility now to protect their community.
—David M. Greenwald reporting