In the weeks and months since the coronavirus reached the United States, video-conferencing apps such as Zoom have become ubiquitous. From classes to business meetings to political events, they have supplanted face-to-face meetings, becoming a mainstay of almost everyone’s daily lives. But such dependence inevitably breeds complications.
Increasingly disturbing reports have revealed Zoom’s security flaws and potential misconduct. The company has been sued for allegedly selling user data illegally to Facebook, and it has been accused of routing traffic through China and accessing users’ webcams and microphones without their knowledge. The most recent scandal is the revelation that as many as half a million Zoom accounts are for sale on the black market.
But perhaps the most pernicious and visible display of Zoom’s security shortcomings is a practice known as “Zoombombing,” which involves strangers entering Zoom calls uninvited and loudly or graphically disrupting them.
These intrusions are often aimed at school classes, with intruders pranking and harassing teachers and, in at least one case, bombarding a Chinese language class with racist comments and videos. Noneducational conferences have been targeted as well, such as a lecture hosted by a Northern California Holocaust Center and a meeting of the US House Oversight Committee.
The issue of Zoombombing came to the Hudson Valley this week, when intruders played child pornography during a virtual town hall hosted by Congressional candidate Mondaire Jones.
The April 17 event featured four Westchester and Rockland community leaders and Jones, a Democrat running in New York’s 17th district, discussing the COVID-19 response in the district. It was attended by between 70 and 90 people and accessible by a public link, campaign manager Charlie Blaettler told The River.
About halfway through the hour-long town hall, the intruders broadcast the obscene images. “I didn’t see very much of it. I closed out and called the person who was running it to try to get it turned off,” Blaettler says. The campaign filed reports with the FBI and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as did “a number of other people,” he adds.
Since the Zoombombing, the campaign has turned its attention away from politics and focused on checking in with attendees. “We’ve sent a followup to everyone who attended and sent people resources in case they need somebody to talk to,” Blaettler says. “Right now, we’ve been really focused on making sure everyone who was there is okay.”
“The experience was very disturbing and I felt badly for Mondaire and his team,” says Irvington mayor Brian Smith, one of the featured guests at the town hall. He added that his anger over the event is directed at Zoom.
“I completely understand that they have had a twentyfold increase in users, but the host needs to be able to have full control over the meeting, as well as the ability to report obscene or illegal activity in real time,” he says. “Zoom simply has to do better.”
The Jones campaign is not the first to get Zoombombed. In fact, it’s not even the first in the district. Trolls intruded on an April 15 forum hosted by one of Jones’ primary opponents, Evelyn Farkas, a former national security advisor to President Obama and a common target of right-wing conspiracy theories.
The forum, focused on disinformation and coronavirus, “had a substantial number of trolls signing in,” says Farkas’s deputy campaign manager Matt Urfirer. He estimates that there were between four and eight, with some holding up “Make America Great Again” posters. The intruders also played pornography and used “racially offensive language,” he says.
These intrusions follow a trend of progressive groups, as well as groups heavily populated with racial and ethnic minorities—such as Jones, who is black and gay—being singled out and targeted by Zoombombers. Other Hudson Valley groups that have been targeted include Rockland Indivisible and the College Democrats of New York.
Farkas’s campaign speculates that it was attacked because Farkas is a common target of Trump supporters. “She’s been pretty constantly attacked by trolls on social media, foreign and domestic, since she spoke out against the Trump/Russia connection,” Urfiner says. “Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Sean Spicer—all used their megaphones to attack her as an Obama deep-state agent.”
Policymakers have taken note of the increasingly common issue of Zoombombing and have begun calling for enhanced security and transparency from video conferencing companies.
Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the latter of whom endorsed Jones in the June 23 primary, sent a letter to Zoom Video Communications Inc. demanding it “take all possible actions to protect the security of students’ data and prevent these disturbing intrusions.” These actions include “publicly releasing an independent, comprehensive review of the platform’s cybersecurity and privacy practices,” and “publicly reporting data on the frequency and nature of Zoom classroom intrusions.”
Both the Jones and Farkas campaigns say they won’t turn the Zoombombings into policy issues. However, they both plan to take precautions to prevent future intrusions. The Farkas campaign upgraded to the Webinar version of Zoom, which “gives us more control over who speaks and what our audience sees,” Urfiner says. They have also asked attendants to register instead of posting the link publicly.
“We still want anyone to be able to join, but we found that just slightly increasing barriers to entry significantly decreases trolling,” Urfiner says. “There is always a tradeoff between being accessible and avoiding those types of interactions on the internet.”
Andrew Solender is a political reporter based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSolender.