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How to keep "zoom bombers" from ruining your next meeting

Mar 29, 2020

Zoom, the social platform which has become nearly ubiquitous in the past few weeks, has unintentionally introduced the world to a new term: “Zoom Bombing."

Millions of people are struggling to maintain some semblance of normalcy as they continue to engage in personal and business interactions while simultaneously practicing social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Businesses and colleges are using video conferencing tools such as Zoom to conduct meetings and classes, while other consumers are using these tools to host online discussions, book clubs, happy hours, tasting sessions and concerts.  Despite its usefulness, Zoom’s teleconference technology also comes with potential risks. As of late, these Zoom gatherings have been exposed to an explosive rise in malicious attacks known as “Zoom Bombing.” 

Zoom Bombing occurs when a prankster or troll gate-crashes a Zoom meeting, sometimes one that he or she was not invited to attend and other times public meetings.  On Zoom, the default setting set by the company permits participants to share their screen without permission from the meeting host.  Once the troll crashes the meeting, he or she may display vulgar, misogynistic, or racist videos, images, or text, or even scream obscenities and taunts.  They can also weaponize the chat feature to harass meeting participants, make off-color jokes, or worse.  Public meetings are open to all, and links are readily available on Twitter, Facebook Groups, and other sources.    Numerous examples of Zoom Bombing have occurred in the past few weeks, catching event organizers by surprise. 

Some of these instances occurred on a national scale, and others have hit very close to home.  During a Tennessee-based film class last week, students were shocked by cursing and pornographic pictures, and the class was quickly terminated. Similar stories have recently been reported all over the country.  National restaurant chain Chipotle’s recent public Zoom event with the musician Lauv was forced to be terminated when a participant began displaying pornography.  Similarly, journalists who had organized a Zoom meeting about challenges that women tech founders face were “bombed” by a participant displaying pornography, and they were forced to terminate the event.

There is no way to protect yourself from any and every possible attack, but there are steps that you can, and must, take to defend yourself and your organization. 

Just as in any crisis, education is key.  Educate yourself, or require that the person setting up a meeting take steps to learn the limitations and settings of Zoom and how the platform works.  Practice in advance, and test your system. Even after testing, remain vigilant; while the meeting is taking place, monitor your event, including moderating outrageous or off-topic user behavior or comments.  Be Prepared for something to go awry—including having a finger on the ‘kill’ button. 

Zoom recently released a set of suggestions on “How to Keep the Party Crashers from Crashing Your Zoom Event.” 

Some of Zoom’s suggestions, and suggestions made by some victims of Zoom Bombing, include:

  • “The first rule of Zoom Club: Don’t give up control of your screen.” Prevent participants from screen sharing by changing screen sharing to “Host Only.”
  • Generate random meeting IDs (instead of your Personal Meeting ID) before starting any public event. 
  • Allow only signed-in users to join, allowing the host to manage the participant list.
  • Disable file transfer so that unwanted images, memes and GIFs cannot be transmitted.
  • Disable participants’ video as the host, giving you control over distracting or inappropriate content.
  • Put participants on hold, and mute participants when only the host needs the ability to present.
  • Enable the Waiting Room. This virtual staging area will allow the host to control access to the meeting until the host is ready—allowing the host extra time to put safeguards in place before an issue can arise.
  • Remove unwanted or disruptive participants, and prevent removed participants from rejoining.
  • Disable private chat. This prevents the sending of unwanted messages and has the added benefit of reducing distractions.
  • Disable “Join Before Host.”

Although video conferencing is not new technology, it has never been used on the scale we are seeing today. We will see if teleconferencing becomes the new normal.  Zoom is not the only player in this field—some recommend options such as Signal  or open source Jitsi for business use. Many people also use Apple’s FaceTime and Skype for personal and social interactions.

In a potentially related news story, WalMart recently reported an increase in sales of shirts, but not an equivalent increase in sales of pants. Just remember, there are some things Zoom can’t control!

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