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Tuesday September 21st

Zoombombing at Cedar Ridge High raises cybersecurity concerns in area schools

<p>DTH Photo Illustration. With the virtual meeting platform Zoom becoming more widely used, many participants are having to grapple with 'Zoombombers', or uninvited users who intend to disrupt meetings and events. One such event was a virtual law enforcement transformation town hall hosted by the Northern Orange NAACP on Sunday, July 26, 2020.&nbsp;</p>
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DTH Photo Illustration. With the virtual meeting platform Zoom becoming more widely used, many participants are having to grapple with 'Zoombombers', or uninvited users who intend to disrupt meetings and events. One such event was a virtual law enforcement transformation town hall hosted by the Northern Orange NAACP on Sunday, July 26, 2020. 

With the new remote learning system, students and families in local school districts have faced the challenges of connecting with teachers and peers virtually. 

On the first day of school, an additional challenge emerged: cybersecurity and digital safety for students in a world where everything is virtual.

Cedar Ridge High School experienced a Zoombombing incident on Aug. 17. In an email sent to parents, principal Carlos Ramirez wrote that “highly inappropriate language and images were shared but quickly removed by the teachers” on the first day of school.

NCEdCloud, the district's remote learning system, was down that day, said Melany Stowe, a spokesperson for Orange County Schools. As a result, she said teachers had to adapt to the change and send Zoom links directly to students, who were then able to share those links with people outside of the class.

During the Cedar Ridge Zoombombing, the disruptors yelled obscenities and the N-word and posted inappropriate images to a shared discussion board before the teacher removed those users from the call, Ramirez said. School administrators have not been able to find the perpetrators of the incident, he said.

Zoombombing incidents are not a new phenomenon, but efforts to disrupt virtual gatherings have grown during the past several months.

During the spring, schools and workplaces began to move online due to stay-at-home orders in the midst of the pandemic. Zoom began to see dramatic growth in its number of users — from December to March, the total daily participants increased from 10 million to over 200 million.

This dramatic growth had an unforeseen consequence — an emergence of Zoombombings across schools, workplaces and other communities that have moved their operations online. The incidents have even prompted a response from the FBI, which has received reports of Zoombombings using pornography, hate images and threatening language.

Zoombombing incidents have had a serious impact on people of color, many of whom had presentations and courses disrupted with racist words and phrases causing personal harm, said Amelia Vance, director of youth and education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum. Depending on individuals’ background and personal experiences, she said, emotional trauma may be a continued effect of Zoombombing.

The Zoombombing at Cedar Ridge High School raises larger concerns about cybersecurity and data privacy for students during the period of remote learning. The privacy risks are particularly critical if perpetrators of Zoombombings are able to enter sensitive calls where deeply personal information is being shared, such as in a counseling session or special education services meetings, Vance said.

Cybersecurity efforts to prevent Zoombombing in classrooms depend on students doing their part to ensure links to their classrooms are kept private. Vance said that while it would be difficult for individuals to find the link to a K-12 class on their own, they may find Zoom links that were posted by students.

“You actually had students or others posting those links in Reddit forums and basically giving trolls a map of where they could go in order to disrupt whatever it was in the spring,” Vance said in reference to Zoombombings.

Moving forward, Orange County Schools and Cedar Ridge are taking steps to prevent similar Zoombombing incidents in the future and to encourage digital citizenship education. 

The first step is limiting access to Zoom links.

Teachers at Cedar Ridge are no longer sending Zoom links through email — instead, students will need to log in to Canvas to access Zoom, Ramirez said. Previously, not everyone was using Canvas, but he said the platform is now required for all teachers and students. The school has reiterated the importance of making sure to identify students as they join calls, and using a waiting room as an additional precaution, Ramirez said.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has also taken steps to resolve issues where students are entering online classes that they are not enrolled in, Jeff Nash, a spokesperson for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said in an email. The district has implemented verified meeting room logs, removed the ability to call in via telephone to the meeting and encouraged parents to remind students to keep class links private, he said.

Now that the Cedar Ridge community is beyond the first week of school, Ramirez said they have established a remote rhythm with established safety protocols for the online learning environment. He said he hopes they will not experience any similar events — but in the online learning environment, people with sophisticated hacking abilities may still be able to perpetrate such incidents.

“It breaks my heart when students have to experience ugly and mean and hurtful words,” Ramirez said. “As educators, we do our best to prevent any type of event or that type of experience. With this new remote platform, it just makes us work even harder to protect our students from things like that.”

@nihavattikonda

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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