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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.

Tekashi 6ix9ine Is Afraid of Dying from Coronavirus in Prison, and He's Not Alone.

Healthcare professionals say that nonviolent and at-risk prisoners must released from facilities ASAP.

UPDATE: Tekashi 6ix9ine was released from prison this week. He will serve the rest of his sentence on house arrest.

The rapper, whose real name is Daniel Hernandez, was incarcerated in December 2019 for involvement in a violent street gang. His lawyer, Lance Lazzarro, has called for his immediate release due to the fact that Hernandez suffers from asthma, a vulnerability that puts him at risk from coronavirus. Hernandez was also hospitalized last year for bronchitis and sinusitis, and he has been suffering from shortness of breath, one of the main symptoms of COVID-19.

"Mr. Hernandez has been complaining to prison officials this week of shortness of breath, but apparently the warden of his facility will not allow Mr. Hernandez to go to the hospital despite the recommendation of the facility's medical director that Mr. Hernandez be treated by a doctor at a hospital," Lazzaro said.

In Britain, Julian Assange's lawyers are also requesting the WikiLeaks founder's release on the basis of health risks. He will make an application for bail on Wednesday.

Tekashi 6ix9ine Isn't the Only Immunocompromised Prisoner—Most Just Don't Have Lawyers

Tekashi 6ix9ine and Julian Assange are a few of the many current prison inmates facing profound risks from coronavirus. Even if you dislike them personally, their desperate pleas should raise the alarm about the state of prisons on the whole in light of our global pandemic.

As the rest of the world self-isolates and as New York City shuts down, inmates remain in close quarters, making prisoners extremely vulnerable to exposure—and most of them don't have access to a lawyer and press coverage.

Prisons and coronavirus is a particularly dangerous combination, one that could lead to disaster. "Jails and prisons are often dirty and have really very little in the way of infection control," said Homer Venters, former chief medical officer at Rikers' Island. "There are lots of people using a small number of bathrooms. Many of the sinks are broken or not in use. You may have access to water, but nothing to wipe your hands off with, or no access to soap."

Inside prisons, it may be nearly impossible to successfully separate sick patients from well patients. Outbreaks are inevitable, and healthcare in prisons is often lacking to begin with.

Because of this, most public health officials are arguing that the best solution to the problem is mass release. According to the Marshall Project, Mark Stern, the former Assistant Secretary for the Washington State Department of Corrections, has suggested "downsizing" prison populations in order to ensure inmate and staff health and safety. Downsizing might involve releasing low-risk prisoners and proposing alternatives to arrest for certain crimes.

David Falthi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, puts it more succinctly. "The only effective response is to reduce the population density by releasing people," Fathi says, "starting with those who are most at risk of severe injury or death if they were to contract the virus." In particular, people who suffer from preexisting health conditions, like Tekashi 6ix9ine, and other vulnerable populations like older people, ought to be sent back to their families where they can isolate and be taken care of.

"Across the U.S. we have built a system of punishment that is traumatic, and this is only increased with the coronavirus," said Becca Fealk, an organizer with the American Friends Service Committee of Arizona. "ADC must do more than just provide soap to reduce the chance of an outbreak. They need to release people, including older/aging adults who can be cared for by their loved ones."

Many prison administrations have insisted that they're complying with the CDC's guidelines with regards to their incarcerated populations, but if prisons aren't providing inmates with basic human rights and living supplies—and if even Tekashi 6ix9ine can't get to a doctor—how can we expect them to take care of people during an outbreak?

Prisons Begin Releasing Inmates—But Is It Enough?

Faced with a public health crisis that could lead to mass deaths, prisons all around the nation and the world are taking note. Alameda County plans to release 250 inmates, per NPR, and Los Angeles jails have also begun releasing nonviolent inmates. In New Jersey, up to 1,000 inmates will be released this Thursday, including those serving for parole violations and those serving municipal court convictions. In some places, prisons and law enforcement are coming together to reduce their inmate population. France has delayed or suspended short-term sentences, reducing daily prison admissions from 200 to 30.

These actions garnered support from Senator Kamala Harris, who tweeted that the Bureau of Prisons should release "all low-risk inmates, including those who are in pretrial detention because they can't afford to make bail."

Some jails are also beginning to waive copays in an effort to make sure their incarcerated populations receive healthcare.

"The state's decision to temporarily suspend the $4 copay — the equivalent of a week's worth of work at the prisoner minimum wage of 10 cents an hour — for people reporting cold and flu-like symptoms is a step in the right direction," said Prison Law Office attorney Corene Kendrick, "but it exposes how counterproductive it is to have such a barrier to seeking care. Unfortunately, prior to the COVID-19 crisis," she added, "We regularly heard from incarcerated people that there were shortages of hygiene supplies such as toilet paper and menstrual products." Many incarcerated people's families wind up paying for their hygiene and healthcare.

The coronavirus crisis is exposing the flaws in many institutions, and mass incarceration is just one of them. All these revelations beg deeper questions about why inmates weren't given these supplies or opportunities in the first place. Activists have been asking these questions for years, and the tragedy of the American carceral system has come to the fore in the case of migrants enclosed on the U.S.-Mexico border and in ICE facilities across the nation.

In three ICE detention centers in New Jersey, prisoners are currently on hunger strike in protest of poor conditions and coronavirus risks. One detainee told Vice that his fellow inmates are being kept in a small room without access to soap or even cleaning supplies.

"They say they are locking us in so we can be protected," said a current hunger striker named Olisa Uzoegwu. "But they don't do anything different. The cells stink. The toilets don't flush. There's never enough soap. They give out soap once a week. One bar of soap a week. How does that make any sense?"

This week, hundreds of doctors and thousands of activist organizations expressed this concern about these issues, flooding ICE with letters demanding that they release their overcrowded detention centers. The only crime committed by inmates in these facilities is usually non-sanctioned entry to the United States. Despite all this, ICE is still making arrests. Agents were spotted tracking down undocumented immigrants in San Francisco the day of the state's lockdown.

A Global Issue and a Gathering Storm: Colombia, France, Iran, and the US Grapple with Prison Risks

But the coronavirus pandemic is a global issue, and prisons all around the world are facing questions about how to handle incarcerated populations and prison employees. In some cases, inmates are taking things into their own hands. In Colombia, a prison riot left 23 inmates dead. Prisoners were rioting in protest of overcrowding and poor health services that they felt left them at an extreme risk. Riots have also broken out in prisons in Brazil and Italy.

The largest prison coronavirus outbreak in the nation is in New York City, with 38 inmates at the Rikers' Island prison testing positive; 20 have been released, and 200 more will be tested today. In As Mayor Bill DeBlasio considers whether to release 200 more people, 551 people serving "city sentences" for minor offenses and another 666 serving for technical parole or probation violations (like missing a drug test or a parole check-in) are trapped in Rikers alone. These are nonviolent offenders who do not deserve to be exposed to a potentially deadly virus. Still, the New York Police Chief has said that his officers will not cease making arrests, even though 70 officers have tested positive for COVID-19.

All across the nation and the world, jails are releasing inmates. Why they—especially nonviolent offenders—were there in the first place begs a different question. For now, the most important thing is to open the jails and let the people go. Short of mass release, prisons should not be arresting new inmates outside of extreme circumstances; they need to take more precautionary measures, institute comprehensive testing and quarantine, and follow protocols like those called for by the Federal Defenders of New York.

"A storm is coming," wrote Ross MacDonald, the chief physician at Rikers. "We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can."

How to Help

In the meantime, anyone concerned can make a call to their state representative and inquiring about their current efforts; calling airports and prisons using this script from the New Sanctuary Coalition; participating in actions and protests like those being hosted by the Never Again Action, donating to the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other similar organizations.