• September 30, 2020 2:10 am

Reporting From Delhi

Zooming threats

ByNabeel Ahmed

May 29, 2020

As people work from home, virtual meetings have replaced in-person interactions. In such a scenario, there is growing concern about online security of video conferencing apps for business and pleasure

When factories were closed and brick-and-mortar businesses suffered, digital innovation stepped in to provide the world with alternatives. Necessary changes in our lifestyles and working patterns encouraged the emergence of an array of apps that make work from home and adherence to social distancing norms easier.

One such app that has overtaken all its rivals when it comes to facilitating video conferencing during the lockdown is Zoom. With more than 100 million downloads, this app has surpassed other video calling apps like Skype which had an established base for more than a decade. The number of downloads of Zoom was even higher than those of Facebook and Instagram for the month of April.

However, the soaring popularity of the app may have come at a cost being paid by its unsuspecting userbase.

Developed and launched in 2011 by Zoom Video Communications under the leadership of Eric Yuan, a Chinese American billionaire, the popularity of the app lies in its ability to facilitate video conference calling with over 500 participants. Other important free features in the app that support its widespread use include screen sharing, where participants can share the screen with other participants, meetings lasting up to 40 minutes, conducting polls, broadcasting live on Facebook.

However, the staggering success of Zoom and its wide adoption may not be such a good thing. As the popularity of the app has increased, so have privacy concerns. According to a report by BBC, ex-NSA hacker Patrick Wardle identified multiple issues in the app that puts Apple’s Mac’s microphones and webcams at risk of hijacking. Zoom has also been criticised for sending user data to Facebook, and for wrongly claiming that the app had end-to-end encryption, which it does not.

Concerning the security features of the app, allegations of LinkedIn profiles of Zoom users being at risk even when they were using the app anonymously have surfaced. Also, reports have emerged of e-mail addresses of users along with their photos being at risk.

However, one of the widespread issues witnessed on the app was the ability of users to start video conferences with strangers. This has given rise to a new phenomenon called ‘zoombombing’, where uninvited guests were seen joining video conference calls and shouting abuses at participants. Instances of ‘zoombombers’ sharing pornographic material and images and shouting racial slurs at participants have also been reported on multiple occasions.

These allegations against Zoom have received widespread acknowledgement and there was even a lawsuit against the company that owns the app in a California court by a user in March. The complainant alleged that the Zoom app was being used to collect personal data which was being shared with third parties, including Facebook.

Talking about the security flaws, Eric Yuan boasted, “Usage of Zoom ballooned overnight.

As of the end of December last year, the maximum number of daily meeting participants, both free and paid, was approximately 10 million. In March this year, we reached more than 200 million”. He added an apology, admitting that the app had fallen short of community and own privacy expectations and that his team was working round the clock to fix the issues.

While the user base of the app grew, the developers at Zoom were heavily criticised for trying to introduce more features within the app while taking a lackadaisical approach towards security. To address this concern, Yuan announced that there will be a freeze in the introduction of new features within the app and that the company will shift all its engineering resources to focus on safety and privacy issues.

In addition, to make the user experience safer, Zoom also promised to bring in outside experts to review the app’s security and prepare a transparency report. Recently in a blog post, Zoom asked all its users to update their apps on mobile as well as desktop before 30 May as GCM encryption will become mandatory for all meetings. Users without the updated app will not be able to join any meetings.

Even as the app has been grappling with security issues, corporates have found a use of it other than for virtual meetings. Companies have made headlines in recent days for laying off workers using Zoom. One of the biggest cab aggregators in the world, Uber, recently fired around 3,500 (over 14%) of its employees over a Zoom call; and this is just the beginning of the magnitude of the impersonal use of the app.

According to a report by Verge, a startup company named BIRD, which is in the business of electric scooters, fired around 406 of its employees over a two-minute Zoom webinar, as was the case with Zomato. Another unforeseen use of the app was witnessed when a Singapore court sentenced a 37-year-old man for his role in a drug deal.

On the positive side, the app is also being used across the world to ensure social distancing as loved ones scramble to attend funerals, weddings and other social events during the pandemic. However, this does no mean that security lapses can be wished away.

Even as the Coronavirus continues to rankle the world, the need for a more secure video conferencing app can be felt and one has to wonder what went wrong with Skype, with more than a decade’s headstart, which had at one point had become the generic term for video calls in the English language. Though tech companies like Google have made their own versions of video conferencing apps more accessible by making paid features free till 30 September on Google Hangout’s Meet, they have found few takers.

Along the same lines, apps like TeamViewer, BlueJeans, Cisco Webex Meetings and Adobe Connect are trying to replicate the success of Zoom by providing similar features for users. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to do so and to what extent. As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to change the nature of ‘normal’ life, we may see many more apps facilitating video conferencing with a better sense of security as has been witnessed on Zoom.