Zoom-Bombing: How Trolls Are Hijacking Quarantine (and How to Protect Yourself)

Zoom offers us the opportunity to connect with each other, but at a price.

Digital platforms are becoming vehicles for new ways of life during quarantine, offering new methods of loving and working and connecting with people who we can no longer see in person.

In particular, the video platform known as Zoom is quickly becoming integral to many of our quarantine routines. But where did Zoom come from, and is it helping us—or hurting us?

Like everything on the Internet, it's most likely doing a little bit of both. And like everything on the Internet, there's a lot going on behind the scenes.

Zoom was founded in 2011 by Eric Yuan. As of 2019, the company is valued at $16 billion. In the era of quarantine, most classes and meetings have been shifted over to its servers. Family dinners, dates, classes, revolution-planning sessions, intimate events—all have been shifted over to the online world.

Zoom is an oddly universal experience for many of us in quarantine, a strange third party in between our solitude and the buzzing outside world we used to know. A whole social culture is cropping up around it, filling the void left by concerts and bars—things like "Zoom Parties" and "Zoom Dates" are becoming common social activities, and as with all phenomena of the digital age, it's generated a fair amount of memes. ("Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens" is just one of the Facebook groups dedicated to the strange parallel reality that is a Zoom video call).

A zoom meme nytimes.com

There are fortunate aspects of Zoom. It's allowed businesses to continue and has kept families connected across continents; it's broadcasted weddings and concerts and rallies. Video conferencing services also vitally allow differently-abled people to participate in events they couldn't have attended otherwise.

But there's a darker undercurrent to all this Zooming. The problem with the Internet is that nothing is ever really private. In some part of our mind, we must know this. We know that everything we post on the Internet will live somewhere forever, impossible to scrub away. We know that the firewalls intended to block hackers are just as thin as a few lines of code, as easy to break as a windowpane. Yet now, many of us have no choice but to burn our data at the altar of the web, and to face the consequences that may come.

Zoom-Bombers Inundate Synagogues, Classrooms, and Meditations with Racist Torments

In March, a Massachusetts teacher was in the middle of a Zoom class when suddenly she found her lesson interrupted by a string of vile profanities. The interloper also shouted her home address. In another Massachusetts-based case, another trespasser invaded a Zoom meeting and displayed swastika tattoos on camera.

Cases of so-called "Zoom-bombing" have grown so common—and the attacks are sometimes so heinous and malicious—that the FBI's Boston Division issued a formal warning on March 30, 2020. "As large numbers of people turn to video-teleconferencing (VTC) platforms to stay connected in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, reports of VTC hijacking (also called 'Zoom-bombing') are emerging nationwide," their website reads. "The FBI has received multiple reports of conferences being disrupted by pornographic and/or hate images and threatening language."

This phenomenon is certainly not relegated to Massachusetts. "Zoom-bombing" (or invading a Zoom call) may seem like just another form of trolling, but so far, many Zoom-bombers have delivered racist, hateful invectives during their intrusions onto video calls.

Also near the end of March, an online synagogue service was hijacked by racist accounts, who filled the Zoom group chat with "vile abuse" and anti-Semitic sentiments, according to the rabbi.

"It is deeply upsetting that at such a difficult period we are faced with additional challenges like these. We will be keeping the security of our online provision under review through the weeks ahead," stated the rabbi.

According to the Los Angeles Times, some University of Southern California classrooms have been Zoom-bombed with "racist taunts and porn." The stories go on and on. Morgan Elise Johnson's virtual morning meditation sessions were interrupted with graphic sexual material, which devolved into racist taunts when she tried to mute the hackers.

"I just exited out right away," Johnson said. "For it to be at a moment where we were seeking community and seeking collective calm … it really cut through my spirit and affected me in a very visceral way." Johnson's digital media company, the Triibe, has moved its meditations to Instagram live.

You can find plenty of additional examples of Zoom-bombs on TikTok and YouTube, as many gleeful hackers have uploaded footage of themselves interrupting various meetings. And if you're so inclined, you yourself can easily find information about how to hack Zoom calls yourself. On April 2, ZDNet reported that there are now 30 Discord channels related to Zoom hacking, at least three subreddits—two of which have been banned—and many Twitter accounts broadcasting Zoom codes.

If you're tracing Zoom-bombing to its origins, the online text and voice messaging server Discord is the place where it all began. Many of the hackers are less than subtle, often posting requests for hacks. "Can anybody troll my science class at 9 15," wrote one user in one of Discord's forums, according to pcmag.com. Another user linked to a since-deleted YouTube video that showed someone sharing photos of the Ku Klux Klan to an Alcoholics Anonymous Zoom meeting. The Discord forums are also full of information about hacking Facebook livestreams and Google Hangouts calls.

While many online hackers are seeking lucrative gains like credit card numbers, Zoom hackers seem to be motivated purely by a desire for mischief and chaos–as well as racism. Essentially, they're Internet trolls, AKA the scourge of the virtual earth. But the maliciousness of these racist attacks, which are hate speech through-and-through, can't be underestimated or taken lightly.

How to Protect Your Zoom Account

There are ways to protect yourself against the trolls. pcmag.com recommends creating your own individual meeting ID rather than using the one Zoom assigns to you. They also recommend creating a waiting room so the meeting organizer can choose who to let in, an option that can be found under "account settings," and requiring a password when scheduling new meetings, which can also be found in the account settings under "Schedule Meeting." When all participants arrive, you can "lock" the meeting by clicking "Participants" at the bottom of the screen window.

In addition, The Verge recommends that users disable the screen-sharing feature. Other sites advise turning "attention tracking" off—which can prevent call organizers from seeing whether you're looking at other tabs during your meeting—and you can use a virtual background to disguise your living space.

The Anti-Defamation League has synthesized all this into a list of handy tips, all of which are explained in detail on its website.

Before the meeting:

  • — Disable autosaving chats
  • — Disable file transfer
  • — Disable screen sharing for non-hosts
  • — Disable remote control
  • — Disable annotations
  • — Use per-meeting ID, not personal ID
  • — Disable "Join Before Host"
  • — Enable "Waiting Room"

During the meeting:

  • — Assign at least two co-hosts
  • — Mute all participants
  • — Lock the meeting, if all attendees are present

If you are Zoom bombed:

  • — Remove problematic users and disable their ability to rejoin when asked
  • — Lock the meeting to prevent additional Zoom bombing

Zoom itself has faced scrutiny and questions for quite a while, and its problems extend beyond a vulnerability to hacks. "Things you just would like to have in a chat and video application — strong encryption, strong privacy controls, strong security — just seem to be completely missing," said Patrick Wardle, a security researcher who previously worked at the National Security Agency, per NPR. Wardle discovered a flaw in Zoom's code that could allow hackers to watch video participants through a webcam, a problem Zoom says it has fixed.

And of course, like most big tech companies, Zoom is in cahoots to the evil mastermind behind tech's greatest data suck—Facebook.

Zoom Has Been Quietly Sharing Data with Facebook

Many websites use Facebook's software to enhance and facilitate their own programs. For its part, Zoom immediately connects to Facebook's Graph API app the moment it opens, which immediately places data in the hands of Facebook's developers, according to Motherboard. The app lets Facebook know the time, date, and locations of every zoom call and additional device information. The problem is that Zoom never asked its users for their permission to sell data to Mark Zuckerberg.

Following the Motherboard report, a California Zoom user sued the company for failing to "properly safeguard the personal information of the increasing millions of users," arguing that Zoom is violating California's Unfair Competition Law, Consumers Legal Remedies Act and the Consumer Privacy Act. "The unique advertising identifier allows companies to target the user with advertisements," reads the lawsuit. "This information is sent to Facebook by Zoom regardless of whether the user has an account with Facebook."

In response, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan published a blog post in which he stated, "Our customers' privacy is incredibly important to us, and therefore we decided to remove the Facebook SDK in our iOS client and have reconfigured the feature so that users will still be able to log in with Facebook via their browser." Still, users are questioning whether one CEO's word is enough.

There are other eerie realities about Zoom. For example, call organizers have more power than we think. Using certain settings (which can all be turned off), hosts can read their call participants' messages and can see whether attendees clicked away from the call.


Certainly in the future, more dark truths will emerge about Zoom. For now, many tech companies are advising users not to say or do anything on Zoom that they wouldn't want to be broadcast to the public. Of course, Zoom is probably no more or less safe than the rest of the Internet, a thought that could be comforting or nightmarish depending on what you've been up to online.

A Much Larger Problem: The Internet Is Not a Safe Space

The prospect of a Zoom hack or data breach is scary, and it's absolutely not what any of us want to worry about during these unstable quarantined times. Yet it also reveals a dark truth about the Internet: nothing is safe online—and pretty much everything we post is being used to sell us things. Unless you're a super-famous person or the unlucky target of a bored troll, you should be less afraid that someone will go through your Google search history and more afraid of what's happening to all the times you put in your home address and email on a website's pop-up questionnaire.

Zoom's encryption may be shoddy, but it's certainly not the only site that's selling your data to Google, Facebook, and their cohort of advertising companies. In fact, every ad you see is based on your web search history, demographics, location, and other factors individual to you.

Data—which includes but is not limited to the numbers, emails, and information you put in on all those online forms—is one of the most valuable commodities of the Internet age. Every time we do anything online, or carry our phones anywhere, someone is collecting data, and typically that data is filtered into massive data-collection artificial intelligence programs that synthesize data and use it to sell products.

"We are already becoming tiny chips inside a giant system that nobody really understands," writes historian Yuval Noah Harari. "Every day I absorb countless data bits through emails, phone calls and articles; process the data; and transmit back new bits through more emails, phone calls and articles."

And what will happen to all this data? It's hard to say—but conspiracies are thriving. "Dataists believe in the invisible hand of the dataflow. As the global data-processing system becomes all-knowing and all-powerful, so connecting to the system becomes the source of all meaning," adds Harari. "Dataists further believe that given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves. Once that happens, humans will lose their authority, and humanist practices such as democratic elections will become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives."

That might be extreme, but perhaps not. During this coronavirus quarantine, we will all be pouring much more information onto the Internet than ever before, providing the Internet with intimate knowledge of our every move—more than enough to create pretty accurate digital representations of our own minds. Whoever finds out the best way to harness and sell this data (be it an AI program, a human, or Elon Musk and Grimes' cyborgian child) may just be our new god.

Should You Pay Your Rent While 6.6 Million Americans Are Applying for Unemployment?

Widespread rent strikes may be the best way to help struggling families in an unprecedented crisis

Yesterday the rent was due for millions of Americans for the first time since they were put under quarantine.

We are being told to remain indoors as much as possible and to maintain a safe distance from other people. For some of us, that means working from home. For millions of others, it means they can't work at all. On top of that, the quarantine is causing steep drops in revenue for most sectors of the economy, which means that even a lot of people who can work remotely are being laid off and losing their employer-provided health insurance amid a deadly pandemic. The result is that, for millions of people, paying the rent would require foregoing food or other basic necessities. For others, paying the rent isn't even on the table.

In just the last week, 6.6 million Americans applied for unemployment insurance. That doubled the new record set the week before, making for a total of 10 million newly unemployed Americans in a span of two weeks—and that doesn't even include employees whose hours have been drastically cut or workers removed from the so-called gig economy.

Fortunately, there are some understanding landlords who are offering massively reduced or eliminated rent payments. Others, sadly, are issuing statements threatening tenants with eviction if they don't pay, or insisting that any payments that are deferred will have to be paid in full when the crisis is resolved—despite the obvious fact that the economy is never going to provide back-wages for people who are newly out of work.

Meanwhile, the government payments that are supposed to help people through these difficult times are being given out based on 2018 tax returns—so if you made a lot of money that year but are flat broke now, you're out of luck. Worse still, if you aren't already signed up to receive direct deposits from the IRS, your check could take up to four months to arrive. Coupled with a broad lack of necessary protections from eviction and foreclosure, the whole situation is looking grim.

With all this going on, a lot of people are not going to be able to pay their rent. The idea that all those people should face eviction or be buried in debt as a result is absurd—who would move into all those empty apartments at a time like this, anyway? While landlords may want to believe that they can be insulated from the economic effects of quarantine, that's just not how this is going to work.

Obviously, many landlords have mortgages that need to be paid—the fact that a mortgage freeze has not already been implemented throughout the country is shameful. But in the case of rental properties, that kind of relief is not nearly as urgent as the need for all housed people to keep their homes—and for adequate housing to be provided to the homeless. Landlords must be made to see that they have a duty to relieve some of the burden on their tenants. Even those of us who are able to pay rent: Should we?

Each situation is unique. Are you renting a few rooms in a nice old couple's house and still getting your usual paycheck? If so, you should probably give them rent. But if you are living in a large apartment complex and receiving threatening mass-emails from the management company, then you should talk to your fellow tenants and—even if you're able to pay—consider participating in a rent strike. Likewise, if you are struggling to make payments and feel like you're alone, reach out to your fellow tenants. Find out if they're struggling too, or if they're willing to stand with you.

You may feel it's too late to start this approach, but April 1st was just the beginning. In situations where one person has power over a large group of people—as in employee-employer and tenant-landlord relationships—collective action is necessary to correct that imbalance. Any individual tenant could easily be intimidated by a hard-nosed landlord or a large management company, but if all the tenants are able to communicate—either over the phone, through email, or in person from a safe distance—and coordinate their action, they have the power to negotiate terms. Organizations like the Los Angeles Tenants Union, with the "Food Not Rent" campaign, are helping in that effort, but as individuals we also need to step up.

eviction free nyc

Landlords, as well as the banks that collect their mortgage payments, must all be made aware that they can't bully working people into giving up more than they can afford right now. This is not business as usual. This is a crisis. Solidarity among renters, workers, and everyone at the bottom of the food chain will be necessary if the people with the power in this country are going to be prevented from pushing all the negative consequences downstream. If that means rent strikes, sick outs, appropriation of empty houses for the homeless, then that's what we'll have to do.

As much as we are isolated in this quarantine, we have to find ways to come together and support one another if we're going to get through this.

COVID-19 Marketing Emails Are the Newest Form of Art

You must be very concerned about what your favorite companies are doing during this global crisis.

For most Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned life as we know it upside down.

From school and restaurant closures to quarantines and social distancing, the American people are largely waking up to the fragility of our social systems. But for corporations, and especially marketing professionals, a new art form has emerged from amidst the chaos—the COVID-19 e-mail.

The COVID-19 e-mail, as an ideological concept, is quite simple. If major corporations are your friends, as American culture has attempted to establish time and time again, it follows that you must be very concerned about what they're doing during this global crisis. Sure, you might be a bit worried about how to feed your children when your paychecks aren't coming in and the schools are closed, but how could you sleep at night without knowing that Chipotle is safe? And yes, while it sucks that your grandpa might die without you even being able to enter his room for fear of spreading the virus to others, imagine how much more it would suck if GameStop didn't let you know what they were up to during these perilous times?

But fear not. All of your favorite corporations are right there in your e-mail inbox, detailing exactly what they're doing to prevent the coronavirus from spreading (short of shutting down while continuing to properly pay their employees).

Chipotle

While many Chipotle employees were upset that Chipotle was continuing to disregard sick leave laws even after the pandemic had already reached New York, Chipotle kindly assured us that their protocols were already "industry-leading." So even though it's scary that your significant other is coming down with an awful cough, hopefully knowing that Chipotle already supplied Purell sanitizer to their employees can take a hefty weight off your shoulders.

chipotle covid 19

GameStop

As an asthmatic, I think I can speak for all of us when I say that learning about GameStop's newly assembled "internal COVID-19 taskforce dedicated solely to this issue" is like aloe to the lingering burn of realizing that my compromised immune system makes dying a whole lot more likely. There's only so much that we can do to protect ourselves, so it's comforting to know that GameStop's "taskforce" is watching over everyone.

gamestop covid 19

TurboTax

As Benjamin Franklin once said, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Indeed, this deadly pandemic has arrived in the middle of tax season, so it makes sense that many of us have been waiting on pins and needles to hear from our good pal TurboTax. Happily, they are continuing to "closely monitor, assess and respond to this situation" and, by all accounts, are planning to stay functional as a business with products that exist entirely online. I was upset enough about my brother being homeless after his out-of-state college dorm closed down, so it's great to know that at least TurboTax has their sh*t together.

turbotax covid 19

Free People

Even while we're socially isolated, it's incredibly important for us to maintain our sense of community. After all, we're still a social species. Sadly, many of our human friends have been too ill or preoccupied with their lives falling apart to spend hours chatting online. There are few feelings quite as painful as wishing you could help the people you care about but knowing that doing so very well might make everything a whole lot worse. Free People understands this. "Whether you have questions about a pending order or shipment, where to find a coveted dress, or are simply looking for someone to talk to, we are always here for you," they promise. I hope that none of my loved ones die during all of this, but if they do, I'm genuinely grateful to know that Free People is there for me.

free people covid 19

Sephora

There's no reason that being stuck alone in your apartment needs to mean that you can't go all out. That said, if you want to keep your make-up supply stocked through an indefinite period of isolation, you're going to need to hit up Sephora while you still can. Yes, logically a company whose store model revolves around sampling shared display make-up should probably stop that practice for the good of literally everybody at the first sign of a global pandemic. But that's why Sephora wants you to know that they are "cleaning all display testers with disinfectant multiple times per day and replacing as needed." Who would Sephora be if not your fun, trendy friend who lives life on the wild side. If looking good means spreading just a little bit of coronavirus, so be it.

sephora covid 19

Schmackary's

Personal story: One time before human society started imploding, my girlfriend and I were walking around New York City and had a sudden craving for cookies. A quick Yelp search directed us to a nearby cookie shop called Schmackary's. While checking out, I entered my e-mail for their reward point system or something, thinking that if the cookies were good, I might come back at some point. I do live in New York, after all. In truth, I don't crave cookies often and, in time, I forgot about Schmackary's. But that's the thing about long lost friends; even after years, they were still a part of your life, and sometimes it's nice to have the peace of mind that, while the sky falls down around you, an old friend is doing okay. Even as I run out of food and worry about paying my rent, even as my loved ones fall ill around me, even as paranoia sets in, my heart is filled with joy thinking about how Schmackary's is going "above and beyond in order keep our bakery safe and clean."

schmackarys covid 19