If you think self-isolation is hard right now - and heaven knows it is - just imagine where we’d be without video-calling. Services like Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts and a host of others are making it possible for us to connect with friends, family, workplaces and schools at a time when offline interactions are off the table.
But like every other aspect of life in a digital world, these platforms carry risks as well as benefits, especially when they’re being used by our kids - as they are right now in unprecedented numbers.
Privacy concerns, data mining, pornbombing … We’ve heard a lot in recent days about the cyber-safety loopholes of some of the top video-conferencing apps - especially Zoom, which has, well, zoomed in popularity during the present crisis.
The conversation has had its lighter moments - think comedian Hamish Blake’s hilarious Zoom pranks that have seen him appearing randomly in virtual business meetings and classrooms.
But concerns about Zoom have grown increasingly serious in recent days, with organisations like NASA and SpaceX now banning employees from the app, and the massive New York City school system discontinuing its use as an educational platform.
Yet the New South Wales Department of Education in its new policy for remote learning, has deemed Zoom “appropriate for all stages” although it does not endorse the free version of the platform, owing to its issues around hacking and data breaches.
Concerns about the platform have been acknowledged by Zoom’s founder and CEO Eric Yuan, who conceded last week, "We recognize that we have fallen short of the community's -- and our own -- privacy and security expectations. For that, I am deeply sorry."
So what’s the bottom line? Is Zoom safe for our kids? Let’s break it down.
What exactly IS Zoom?
The acknowledged titan of video-conferencing platforms, Zoom allows users in any geographical location to come together in a livestreamed virtual meeting space, using the built-in video camera and microphone on virtually any PC, laptop, or mobile device.
Zoom’s basic version is free to use, and can accommodate a meeting of up to 100, but it does come with time restrictions. A variety of paid versions offer more features, greater flexibility and better support.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom has offered its educational service - normally a paid version - free of charge. Currently over 90,000 schools in 20 countries are using it for online teaching.
Downloading and installing Zoom is a no-brainer, and no account set-up is required. As for getting people into a meeting or other “digital event,” including a classroom, all you do is send them a link.
Spam and messaging from randoms
Junk messages, scams and nuisance calls and texts from strangers are a way of life on some other video-calling apps - looking at you, Skype - and it’s one of the biggest safety risks for under-age users.
With Zoom, if someone sends you a meeting link, and you don’t know them or don’t want to participate, you do nothing - and that’s the end of it.
This particular problem, which involves a user dropping pornographic, violent, racist or other inappropriate content onto the screen of a video conference, has been widely noted on Zoom (where it’s been dubbed “Zoombombing”) as well as the teen-targeted video-chat app Houseparty.
Comedian Hamish Blake drew attention to the risks last week - inadvertently - with a series of prank appearances in Zoom meetings around the country, following a call out to email him meeting links.
Yet the risks for online education are no laughing matter, with numerous documented reports of hate speech, graphic images, people yelling profanities or exposing themselves during online classes.
The risks for online education are no laughing matter, with numerous documented reports of hate speech, graphic images, people yelling profanities or exposing themselves during online classes.
Privacy and screen settings in Zoom can be adjusted to prevent bombing attacks. (See our blog, here.) And Zoom has recently adjusted its default settings for educational accounts. But the company admits that more work is needed to protect the safety and privacy of users, especially in the education sector.
Other privacy concerns
Cyber safety experts have raised numerous concerns about other Zoom features. Attendee tracking, for example, which allows hosts to see whether participants are still viewing the meeting window. A teacher’s dream, perhaps - but an issue for adults.
Zoom does not provide end-to-end encryption - basically, a feature that scrambles content to restrict viewing to sender and designated receiver/s - although there have been misleading suggestions otherwise. This means it is vulnerable to hackers - and it is for this reason that space exploration organisations like NASA and SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, have banned its use.
The company has said it will stop adding new features for the next 90 days and instead focus all of its efforts on addressing privacy issues.
Safety tips for kids using ANY video-calling app
As for mums and dads, it’s important to monitor your child’s video chats. That doesn’t mean hovering over their shoulder all day - but it does mean keeping an eye and an ear out at frequent intervals.
And now, more than ever, be sure to keep all devices out of bedrooms.
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