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Heel Talk episode seven: 'Zoombombings,' remote learning and a fall semester update

The seventh episode of Heel Talk went live Tuesday morning. 

The FBI issued a warning in March about the practice of "Zoombombings," where uninvited users hijack and disrupt teleconferences, often with offensive or racist images and language. UNC has not gone unaffected. Host Evely Forte and University desk editor Maydha Devarajan talk about a Hussman School of Journalism and Media class that was interrupted by unidentified users — including a naked man — who screamed the n-word multiple times and that “no one f------ cares.” Evely also breaks down the latest updates concerning fall semester. 

For more information on today’s episode, click here

The transcript of Tuesday’s episode is available below: 

Evely Forte: I’m Evely Forte from The Daily Tar Heel, and this is Heel Talk.

Hey everyone, just a quick warning here. This episode contains strong language.

Welcome back to Heel Talk. I’m Evely Forte, and today I’m joined by Maydha Devarajan, the summer University desk editor. Welcome back Maydha. 

Maydha Devarajan: Hi Evely, thanks for having me. 

EF: So today we are talking about a fairly new phenomenon, known as “Zoombombing,” which is when uninvited users hijack and disrupt teleconferences, often with offensive or racist images and language. With the increase in teleconferencing due to COVID-19, many college students across the nation have experienced some form of Zoombombing. And, as you’ll learn today, UNC is not immune to this. Maydha, do you have a sense as to why Zoombombings have occurred at all?

MD: It’s definitely something that we’ve seen an increased prevalence of in higher education, um, like you were saying, with this increase in teleconferencing, or just, like, online communication tools in general, with remote learning. There’s just been, I guess, a lot more opportunity for these kinds of events to happen. And, it doesn’t help that, like, Zoom, in particular, is immensely popular. I think the CEO had said that they had reached more than 200 million daily meeting participants in March, so it’s just, like a factor of it being extremely popular. And, it’s sort of the same with any internet trolls. But, it’s definitely also a security threat, where people just breaking into a meeting, like, if that was not virtual you’d be scared and frustrated that you can’t protect yourself, so it’s sort of the same in that situation where people are trolling and wanting to disrupt meetings with any way that they can. 

EF: And Maydha, do you know if there are any consequences for alleged Zoombombers? 

MD: The FBI issued a warning in late March, after they’d received a few reports about it. So, I think you can report these kinds of events to the FBI’s internet crime complaint center. Um, and I know some states, like Michigan, their federal, state and local law enforcements are, sort of, joining together and people can be charged with state or federal crimes, for, like, disrupting a public meeting or hate crimes or threatening online communications in general. So, I think those are, like, punishable by fines. 

EF: I know some Zoombombers invaded a Hussman School of Journalism and Media class, MEJO 584: International Projects. Could you tell us a little bit more about that class?

MD: Yeah, I don’t know how it is for you, but when I was a freshman, like, I remember hearing about this class, um, its, like, definitely a really big deal. There’s an application to get in, and they select a group of students every year. They get to go to another country, over Spring Break, and they conduct a really in-depth, really intensive multimedia project with a particular theme. And then, they come back and they put together this multimedia website that has, like, videos and articles and graphics, it’s really interactive, and it’s a huge amount of work. And, typically, the semester ends with a presentation, in the FedEx Global Center, of the project. Obviously, they couldn’t do that because of the pandemic. So, I spoke to one student, um, Malin Curry; he is one of the PR and marketing coordinators for the class. He told me that they looked for other options. Him and the lead instructor, Pat Davison, um, they ended up settling on Watch2Gether, which is a content sharing website. So, they had a live premiere of the project on April 29th, and Malin said, for the most part, Watch2Gether worked pretty well. They had practiced it a few times beforehand, um, but I think, obviously, when things actually happen, I think there were, like, upwards of a few hundred people who were watching it at the same time. And so, for the most part it went well; like, they played videos and they were going to do a Q&A session after that, but I think that they said the platform just started kind of getting overwhelmed because there were so many users on. So, one student suggested transitioning to Zoom, to finish the Q&A; they had used that in class like I think most of us have at UNC. So, one of the students in the class ended up creating a Zoom session, and they sent that link in the Watch2Gether chat and they disseminated that on the class's, like, social media, so people could join. And then, that’s when the Zoombombing occurred. 

EF: So, the Zoombombing occurred during the Q&A session that took place on the Zoom chat, really?

MD: Yeah, so Malin said that, um, they were able to answer a few questions, about, like, the project, and then it happened pretty quickly after that from what I gathered. I think the first thing that happened was that someone shouted “no one f------- cares,” and then the n-word repeatedly. He said it was very guttural and jarring. And, there was also a naked man, according to Malin, on the chat, who was sitting in a bathroom, and they weren’t able to tell who the users were. But, the Zoom session ended pretty quickly after that. 

Malin Curry: It definitely did put, like, a dampening on, kind of, just our celebration of our work, but it in no way devalues the work that we’ve done. 

EF: So, Maydha, when the intrusion occurred, was it just the individual’s voice that was heard, with a blocked camera, or were images actually seen?

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MD: I’m not entirely sure, I know they weren’t able to tell exactly who it was. Some of the students were able to see that naked man, but based on the conversations I had with Malin, Pat and another student in the class, named Taylor Tyson, um, I think that there were upwards of, like, 50 people on the call. So, with that amount of people, it was just, I guess, hard to figure out who because you can’t have everybody on the screen at once. 

EF: And do you have a sense, Maydha, as to how the intrusion affected the rest of the class experience that day?

MD: I think it was really jarring, that was one word that Taylor and Malin used in particular, especially for the students of color in the class. Taylor said, um, they had considered starting a new, password protected session to continue answering questions, but the class eventually decided against it. She said she was especially vocal about not continuing, she felt it would, sort of, be irresponsible for the students of color. And, Pat had said that he was particularly saddened that this had happened. He had mentioned how this is his 11th time leading an international project, and it’s always been his favorite experience to see how students are, sort of, empowered by having that presentation at the end of the semester, and getting to answer questions from people. And so, he just said that it was really heartbreaking that they weren’t able to have that normal experience. And then, for something like this to happen, um, it’s just terrible. 

But, they all also emphasized how they didn’t want this Zoombombing to be, sort of,  the defining narrative of the class. Taylor emphasized this in particular.

Taylor Tyson: This is a project built around having all-nighters. Like, this is a project where you stay in the bottom of Carroll Hall for hours on end and you’re right there with your teammates. And, you kind of learn from that. And, we’ve done that apart. And, I think that’s something that should be recognized, more so than the, like, two minutes of some Zoombombers during our question and answers. 

EF: So, Maydha, do you know if the FBI or any police agency, really, was contacted after this Zoombombing incident occurred?

MD: So, I spoke to Pat, and he said that, unfortunately, because the Zoom session was created off campus, at a student’s parents’ home, the UNC campus police don’t have jurisdiction to take, sort of, any actionable steps. And, also, because it was created on a account, so it’s a free account, and not a UNC Zoom account, UNC IT security doesn’t have access to call logs. So, I guess it’s not really been a possibility to find the identity of these Zoombombers, unfortunately.

EF: And, though the spring semester has already ended, I know the first summer session has already started. And, with both summer sessions occurring online due to the pandemic, are there any ways to prevent these types of attacks from occurring on future Zoom calls?

MD: So, I reached out to Zoom, and in an email with one of their spokespersons they said that the company’s been educating users on features and different protection measures as early as March 20th. And, they outlined a few different resource guides that they had posted publicly for users. Some of the things that they had mentioned were, um, controlling screen sharing or muting participants, and not using personal IDs when you join calls. But, I think it’s sort of different in this situation, with calls that were made, sort of, on the fly or ones that are for hosting public events, it’s a bit different. Like, you can’t anticipate everything. So, that’s something that William Enck, he’s an associate professor of computer science at N.C. State, and, um, co-director of the security institute. He had mentioned that there’s, sort of, a security and usability trade-off with video conferencing tools like Zoom. So, for example, he said while implementing the use of passwords is one way to prevent unwanted intruders, it can also be difficult to balance that against making sure that all the information that’s needed to access the Zoom session is also made available to students pretty easily. 

William Enck: When you’re doing these sorts of things, a thing that’s really good, particularly when they’re live and they’re very public, of having someone besides the person who’s presenting at the controls, because you can’t anticipate everything. 

MD: The Zoom spokesperson also said they’d been deeply upset to hear about these kinds of incidents and they strongly condemn such behavior. And, they’ve also updated some of their features to help users more easily protect their meetings. Some of that includes: they added a new security icon to Zoom meeting controls, so hosts can, I guess, more quickly access those security features, which includes the ability to remove people or lock meetings. They also made meeting passwords and virtual waiting rooms on by default for basic or free accounts. And, I’d also spoken to UNC Hussman IT manager Michael Sharpe; he said that Hussman IT had worked with faculty and staff, um, to, sort of, go over some one-on-one and group in-person trainings before we went remote, and also trainings over Zoom, to, sort of, figure out how make that transition, that, sort of, abrupt switch from in person to solely, like, remote teaching and learning away from infrastructure support. And, within that, they’d also advised faculty and staff to follow certain guidelines that are outlined on their help site, about Zoombombings in particular. 

EF: And, I know from your reporting, Maydha, Taylor Tyson, one of the students from this MEJO class, says she wishes she would have received training on how to use Zoom safely and effectively beforehand. Do you have a sense as to whether UNC students will receive some sort of training or resources to combat the incidents moving forward? 

MD: Michael had mentioned that Hussman IT primarily provides support to faculty and staff, while students are mainly supported by the university IT services, so I don’t know, exactly, if they have anything planned. But, I expect, depending on what happens in the fall, and if students are more vocal about these kinds of issues, I think that they’ll probably have to implement some kind of training. They had practiced the live screening a few times beforehand, and something like this still happened. It’s not something you can control for. So, I think, with that prevalence of Zoombombings happening, especially in higher education, we’ll probably have to have some kind of training or resources, we just don’t really know exactly what that will be yet. 

EF: I anticipate, as you mentioned, moving forward, if any other Zoombombing incidents were to occur, or if any updates on that end as far as training and resources, um, come along, we’ll definitely keep all of our audience members informed, on here and through our stories and online coverage. So, thank you so much Maydha for being here and for sharing your insight on this topic and story. 

MD: Thank you for having me. 

EF: And now, here’s an update on fall semester, from this past week, that you should be familiar with. 

UNC’s first day of classes will be held on August 10th, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced at Thursday’s UNC Board of Trustees meeting. As part of the Carolina Roadmap plan, fall break will be canceled, and students will complete finals by November 24th. Following final exams, students will not return to campus until the spring semester begins in January. Here are some highlights from the Chancellor’s announcement. Lenoir and Chase dining halls will be open only to students with a meal plan, and seating within the dining halls will be reduced to promote physical distancing. Class sizes will be adjusted to also accommodate social distancing. Exits and entrances to buildings will be one way, and time between classes will be extended. Because of this, Guskiewicz said in the email that the number of courses held during typical weekdays will be impacted, so students and faculty can expect additional weeknight classes to occur. In the email, Guskiewicz announced a new program called Carolina Away, which will allow 1,000 new undergraduates to have an entirely online experience for the fall semester. Based on reporting by Kyle Ingram, Guskiewicz said this program will include about 200 international students who cannot secure visas to come to Chapel Hill, along with students who prefer not to live in residence halls because of the virus. Guskiewicz also said that this plan was created based on advice from infectious disease and public health experts, who believed a second wave of the virus may occur sometime late fall or early winter. 

As always, you can find links to learn more about these developments in the show notes below. 

This week’s episode of Heel Talk was co-edited and co-produced by Meredith Radford and myself. That’s it for this week’s episode of Heel Talk. I’m Evely Forte. I’ll see you next week. 

So, if you enjoyed today’s episode, please consider subscribing, rating and reviewing the episode, and sharing it with someone that you think would enjoy it too. I’ll see you next time. 

Episode transcribed by Meredith Radford

DTH stories mentioned in this episode: 

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