Faculty Members Unsure About Zoom Privacy Issues

Aside from making national headlines for being the main online application that colleges are turning towards during the COVID-19 outbreak, Zoom has received much media attention for its privacy and security issues. As was reported by multiple major news outlets, one of the app’s largest safety concerns stems from internal weaknesses that have led to something called “Zoombombing.” Random individuals have been crashing or “bombing” Zoom conferences to cause disruption, sometimes even yelling or writing racist slurs. An email was sent out to Swarthmore students April 3 from Andrew Ruether, Head of Academic Technology Support, providing information about this situation. The email detailed steps that can be taken to ensure that Zoom classes remain unharmed. Some faculty members, however, still seem unsure about the application’s reliability. 

In an email to The Phoenix, Kevin Webb, Associate Professor of Computer Science, shared how he’s using Youtube to stream his classes instead of using Zoom because of security and privacy concerns. He, however, has given his students the option to use Zoom, Google Meet/Hangouts, and Skype for small group discussions. 

“I don’t like the idea of forcing anyone to install anything. Youtube/Hangouts/Slack all run well from a browser, and while Zoom claims to be able to do that, it doesn’t seem to work reliably like [other applications] do,” wrote Webb.

Webb shared his more general opinions on the recent privacy and security issues with Zoom and how it affects Swarthmore’s transition to an online education, drawing attention to the fact that some professors may not realize such issues exist nor feel capable of tackling them. 

“Even in the best circumstances, digital security and privacy are difficult to navigate. People often want to solve a particular problem, and security/privacy concerns typically slow them down, which they often find frustrating. At a time like this when everyone is scrambling to adjust their courses, most instructors probably aren’t slowing down to evaluate the security and privacy of the tools they’re using. Many instructors may also not feel comfortable in evaluating the technical aspects of privacy if they’re unfamiliar with the details of how they work,” wrote Webb. 

Webb isn’t the only faculty member who feels uncertain about Zoom’s reliability. Randall Exon, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Professor of Art, shared Webb’s concerns about the application, detailing a few worrisome incidents from other colleges that he’s heard about. 

“From what I understand, a greater concern that the faculty have is the videotaping. I think there were some conservative groups, organizations of students who were asking for videotapes of professors on Zoom [and] were looking for comments [to take] out of context where a professor might say something that could be used to go viral,” said Exon. 

Exon elaborated upon this apprehension faculty members have with the ability of students or other individuals to record class sessions.

“People can pull out a phone and record you and you don’t know it. I don’t think people really thought about that until Zoom came along [as] there’s an understanding that phones are turned off when [you’re in a] classroom,” said Exon. “It’s hard to police that [over Zoom], and nobody wants to police [that].”

Both Webb and Exon shared that privacy and security issues weren’t a major topic of discussion amongst faculty members during the school’s initial transition to online classes. Exon stated that, initially, faculty members did not notice these issues, however, as online classes have progressed, they are becoming more aware of them. Exon also noted how he believes that right now faculty members are more concerned with the possibility of being recorded than potential “Zoombombers.” 

“I don’t remember in [department meetings] issues of security coming up. I think [they came up] once we got up and running. In the first week, we were just trying to deal with the logistics of it all,” said Exon. “I suppose somebody could use [“Zoombombing”] in a way that, if there were people in a class with certain sensitivities, could be frightening or disturbing. But I think the main [concern] is just what could be done with these recordings.” 

Webb stated that the CS department came to the conclusion that it would be best for individual faculty members to decide how they wanted to handle Swarthmore’s transition to online classes.

“I can only speak for my department rather than the college as a whole. I suspect that others on campus have had such discussions (e.g., in ITS), but I wasn’t a part of those conversations. In CS, we briefly discussed the privacy of Zoom in a department meeting. We decided that it would be up to individual faculty members to decide how to transition their classes to be online. Some folks opted for Zoom and others didn’t for a wide variety of reasons,” wrote Webb. “[These reasons were] mainly comfort / personal preference / what they thought fit best for their class style, but most of us didn’t talk too much about the details of why we chose one thing or another. I don’t think I should speculate too much about why they made their choices.”

As of the publication of this article, there has been no update other than Ruether’s first email, at least for the students, on Zoom privacy and security issues. It also appears that there have been no instances of “Zoombombing” in any Swarthmore online classes, as was verified by Joel Cooper, Chief Information Technology Officer in a separate email to The Phoenix. Cooper provided a hopeful outlook on Zoom’s privacy and security issues.  

“While Zoom has received some bad press regarding security, they have been extremely responsive in the past month in addressing concerns and quickly implementing security improvements. They have been particularly responsive to requests from K-12 and the higher education community,” wrote Cooper. 

Professor Webb and Professor Exon’s testimonies show, however, that faculty members still feel uneasy using the application. If you are interested in learning more about these issues, Professor Webb shared a few links that provide specifics, including an article from Security Boulevard, one from The Intercept, and two Reddit chains (the first one can be found here and the second one, here) detailing cases of Zoom classes being interrupted

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