Hackers are interrupting digital meetings. Here’s how to protect yours.

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Keene Mayor George Hansel is focused on keeping in touch with his community as the coronavirus crisis unfolded. He’s been hosting daily virtual town hall meetings to keep residents and lawmakers up to date, while respecting social distancing. 

In late March, he had about 100 participants on a video call, including Keene State College President Melinda Treadwell, who was discussing the college’s response to the virus. Suddenly,  a hacker took control of the call, blacking out participants’ video screens and disrupting the meeting. 

“We were victims of that ‘Zoom-bombing’” Hansel says. “They were just taking advantage of the fact that this tech was new to us and we hadn’t taken the necessary precautions.”

So called ‘Zoom-bombing’ — interrupting virtual meetings — has been on the rise as millions of Americans, including those in the Granite State, conduct business online. While the interruption of the Keene meeting was relatively harmless, other hackers have shown graphic images or shouted slurs. The FBI’s Boston office — which covers New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — released a public announcement on March 30, warning users of video-conferencing platforms about the risk. 

Maeve Dion, assistant professor of security studies at the University of New Hampshire, says that users need to be proactive about protecting themselves, their children and their meeting participants from disruptions, which can be graphic or disturbing. 

“The risk is there for any type of platform, but we love using this software because it makes our lives more convenient,” she said. With increased use for school and work amid coronavirus restrictions, the onus is on users to take control of privacy and security settings to make the environment as secure as possible, she says. 

Claiming control of your meeting

‘Zoom-bombing’ is named for the popular video-conferencing platform Zoom, but it can happen anywhere. Zoom and other conferencing platforms have had a surge in popularity in the past few months. In December 2019 Zoom hosted 10 million meetings daily around the world; by March, that number had risen to 200 million, according to the company. The expanded use has given rise to some unexpected issues, including the meeting disruptions. 

“We recognize that we have fallen short of the community’s – and our own – privacy and security expectations,” Zoom CEO Eric S. Yuan wrote in an April 1 blog post on the company’s site. The company has increased access to tutorials so that users better understand settings, and is working to address safety and privacy concerns, Yuan wrote.

For the most part, people who disrupt meetings target video conferences that are open to the public, using links that have been shared online. With a growing awareness of the problem, Dion says there are steps all users should take to protect themselves. 

“We have not been setting up meetings in a way that lessens the likelihood of this happening,” she says. 

However, taking control can be easy. Here’s what Dion suggests:

  • Update your software. Many video-conferencing platforms have updated their security offerings in the past few months, including Zoom. Updating your software will ensure you have the best protection. 
  • Use authentication. Many platforms offer the option to require authentication from participants, like a school username and log-in. Even the free version of Zoom gives the option of requiring a password or putting participants in a “waiting room” before they enter the call. That way, the meeting host can be sure no one uninvited is participating. 
  • Utilize audio and visual controls. For large public meetings — like the one in Keene — it’s not possible to authenticate all participants. In these cases, the meeting host should use in-app controls so that participants cannot share their screen or their audio without permission. 
  • Avoid sharing the link. Unless you are hosting a large public meeting, avoid posting the link to your video conference on social media. Instead, send it directly to select participants. 

Any of these simple steps can drastically cut down on your likelihood of being interrupted by pranksters. 

“It’s the lowest hanging fruit that’s going to be the issue,” Dion says. 

A conversation about digital communication

People should ask their organizations — whether work, school or non-profits — about the security that they have put in place around digital meetings, Dion says. This is especially important for parents. 

“Part of your role as a parent is getting that information,” she says. “What rules and precautions has that teacher put into place?”

Despite his experience with Zoom-bombing, Hansel continues to use the platform for virtual town halls, although he’s adjusted the meeting settings to mitigate the risk. He’s happy to have the tool available, he says. 

“It’s necessary now more than ever to make sure we’re connected to our constituents. The importance of communicating the right information to the public outweighs the risk of using these digital platforms.”


GSNC 2 ColorThese articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org

 

About this Author

Kelly Burch

Kelly Burch is a New Hampshire-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington PostThe Independent, Oprah magazine and more. Kelly covers personal finance, mental health and other topics. She's currently working on a memoir about traveling the United States by RV with her husband and two young children.