Tech

As New York City schools ban Zoom, online privacy resonates with video

The public’s generally blasé attitude towards online privacy finally seems to have met its match — in video chatting. 

On Friday, New York City banned its schools from using Zoom after determining the platform wasn’t private and secure enough. Like organizations and individuals around the world, the district had turned to Zoom to remotely carry on its business during coronavirus-necessitated social distancing orders. 

However, in recent weeks, Zoom’s data collection practices, lack of security and encryption, and multiple other vulnerabilities, came to light. So now, its prominence as the quarantine video chat tool of choice is in question.

In addition to the NYC Department of Education’s actions, other districts are reexamining their use of the platform, too. Even the FBI issued a warning about “Zoombombing,” the coordinated practice of crashing online classes and meetings and broadcasting inappropriate or offensive content. 

In the past, major online privacy scandals have had an underwhelming effect on the public’s actions. 

The Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed the extent of data Facebook (and other tech giants) collect on its users and monetize through targeted advertising; today, Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram continue to gain users. Amazon-owned Ring is a privacy disaster, delivering data to law enforcement and snooping on users; sales of Ring cameras actually tripled in December 2019. Throughout 2019, reports surfaced on every company that makes smart speakers that the devices are were in some way listening to our private conversations; by the end of 2019, sales of smart speakers still reached a record high.

But now, apparently, the act of breaking into our streamed, visual digital gatherings is the privacy violation egregious enough to get authorities and individuals alike to actually care about online security. 

Under social distancing orders, video chats have had to take the place of our in-person interactions. The fact that those classes, therapy sessions, and family catch-ups could be Zoombombed or otherwise exploited has prompted action in ways that other security flaws have not.

Zoom itself has put in place more privacy protections that should prevent against Zoombombing, including changing the default settings to password protect meeting and enable waiting rooms for participants. It has issued a series of apologies for other privacy blunders, such as a vulnerability that let hackers steal Windows passwords and its practices of mining data from LinkedIn and sending data to Facebook. 

That does not appear to be enough for superintendents who are trying to enable online learning while also protecting the privacy of their charges. The New York City Department of Education has recommended that schools use Microsoft Teams for virtual class instead. 

Protecting your online privacy can sometimes feel like an impossible task on an internet that runs on the use of personal data to sell things. But a compromised video call puts the issue into focus in a way that other scandals haven’t. 

As our world relies on the virtual realm for connection while social distancing, hopefully that attitude can impact our privacy on the rest of the web, too.



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