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'Zoombombing' brings up questions of cybersecurity and safety for UNC students

DTH Photo Illustration

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to limit in-person interactions, the use of online communication tools and video conferencing platforms has soared in recent months — along with concerns about safety and cybersecurity. 

Zoom — one of the most popular of these conferencing platforms — reached more than 200 million daily meeting participants in March, according to a blog post from Eric Yuan, the company’s CEO. 

The platform has been used by universities and schools across the country as a means to facilitate remote instruction. But as the number of users increases, so have reports of “Zoombombings.” 

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, which has had an active vendor agreement with the company since 2017, has not gone unaffected.

‘Thoughtless and senseless’

On April 29, a group of Hussman School of Journalism and Media students in the International Projects class conducted a live premiere of its final project, Barriers, on the content-sharing website Watch2Gether. 

Every year, the select group of students in the International Projects course typically spends the spring semester producing an intensive multimedia project after traveling to another country for spring break to conduct on-the-ground reporting. This year, the team of 31 students and instructors, including photographers, videographers and designers, traveled to Belize to document and explore environmental issues within the country. 

The class typically ends with a live screening of the project in the FedEx Global Education Center, but with the shift to remote learning, students had to search for other options.

While the majority of the premiere went without issues, as the class began their Q&A session, Malin Curry, one of the PR and marketing coordinators, said they began to experience glitches and technical difficulties because of the high volume of users. 

One of the students suggested moving the premiere to Zoom to conduct the Q&A session, and a link was later sent in the Watch2Gether chat and disseminated on Barriers’ social media accounts. 

Curry said his classmates were able to answer a few questions on Zoom before the session was interrupted by unidentified users — including a naked man — who screamed the n-word multiple times and that “no one f------ cares.” 

The session ended shortly after the Zoombombing, and while the class considered creating a new password-protected session to keep answering questions, they eventually decided against it, Curry said. 

“It definitely did put a dampening on kind of, just our celebration of our work,” Curry said. “But it in no way devalues the work that we've done.”

Taylor Tyson, another student in the class, said she was especially vocal about not continuing the Q&A session, as she felt it would be irresponsible to the students of color in the class. 

“I think that, at that point, a lot of us were worn out,” Tyson said. “And I know me, personally, I needed a moment away from my computer because it just felt very jarring and it's not something that you can prepare for, to be unprotected in a space in our project, where we are being most vulnerable.” 

Journalism professor Pat Davison is the lead instructor for International Projects. He said one of his favorite experiences every year has been watching how students are empowered by presenting their own work.

“For this to be their final experience of a project like this, just breaks my heart because they were such a great team and they put in so much work and they did a really meaningful project,” Davison said. “And I just feel like something so thoughtless and senseless to be the final thing, it's just heartbreaking.” 

Davison said out of the 11 international projects he has led, the class has never before conducted a virtual screening. He said they had discussed options with the Hussman Information Technology department and practiced the virtual screening multiple times beforehand. 

He also said he attempted to find the identity of the Zoombombers, but because the Zoom session was created off campus and was hosted by a free account, UNC IT doesn’t have access to the call logs and University police doesn't have jurisdiction to take actionable steps against the intruders. 

‘You can’t anticipate everything’

William Enck, associate professor of computer science and co-director of the Secure Computing Institute at N.C. State University, said one of the greatest challenges with newer video conferencing platforms like Zoom is a security and usability trade-off. 

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He said for example, while implementing the use of passwords is one way to prevent unwanted intruders, it can be difficult to balance that against ensuring information that is needed to access a Zoom session is also easily made available to students. 

He said one potential way of catching Zoombombers before they act is having someone other than the host monitor participants.

“When you’re doing these sorts of things, I think it'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,” Enck said. "And so having the ability to have someone to react very quickly to something you didn't anticipate, I think this is important, from that perspective.”

In an email statement, a Zoom spokesperson said the company “strongly condemns” the actions of Zoombombers, and has been alerting users of protection measures since March 20. 

The spokesperson also said Zoom has updated several features to help users secure their meetings. The features include making meeting controls more easily accessible to allow hosts to lock the meeting or remove participants, and making meeting passwords and virtual waiting rooms on by default for free accounts.

Michael Sharpe, IT manager for the Hussman School, said in an email statement that Hussman IT provided assistance to faculty and staff through one-on-one and group in-person trainings before the transition to remote instruction to address the different factors involved in making the abrupt switch to online communication. 

He said Hussman IT mainly provides support to faculty and staff, while students are primarily supported by UNC Information Technology Services. 

“We addressed safeguards with securing meetings during our initial trainings, and as the concept of 'Zoombombing' became more prevalent, we reiterated and highlighted the importance of using Zoom's security features to prevent unwanted participants from causing disruption by developing the guidelines previously mentioned,” Sharpe said. 

'Meaningful communication'

Tyson said while she felt supported by her classmates and faculty after the incident occurred, she wishes she would have received training on how to use Zoom efficiently and safely beforehand. 

“I think that while we do love the framework of Zoom and this idea that we can all get together and see each other's face and have meaningful communication, I think there's just this level of insecurity that's within it,” Tyson said. “That just made me feel really unsafe on Zoom — not within my classroom, but just within the sense that I could hop onto Zoom and it could get interrupted if anyone finds the link.”

Despite the Zoombombing, Tyson, Curry and Davison reiterated that the work the students created will live on beyond the interruption of the project’s live premiere. Davison, who hopes to have a premiere on campus again in the fall, noted that the entirety of the final project had to be put together remotely. Despite the difficult task, students rose to the challenge, he said.

“We were the only team in the Hussman School that was able to leave on spring break,” Davison said. “And we almost didn't get to go, and we got to go and we produced this, what I think is a really, really powerful piece of journalism.” 

Tyson said she also hopes that the efforts she and her classmates put into Barriers will be remembered more than anything else.

“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,” Tyson said. “And I think that's something that should be recognized more so than the, what, two minutes, of some Zoombombers during our question and answers.”