Stop Blaming the Victims of Zoombombing
Since the Coronavirus pandemic has made Zoom the default meeting space for millions, reports have surged of assholes storming people’s living rooms with all manner of disgusting attacks. These home invasions have included profanity, racist slurs, Nazi propaganda, and non-consensual nudity, even in classrooms for children.
Berkeley Unified suspends online classes after naked 'Zoombomber' enters session - Berkeleyside
Just two days into its "distance learning" program, Berkeley Unified has suspended its use of video conferencing…
The usual responses I see to these incidents of “Zoombombing” are one or both of the following:
- Zoom engineers need to improve their security settings.
- Zoom users need to use the security settings properly.
Neither of these responses is incorrect, per se, especially the first. Zoom’s CEO has acknowledged that their product’s existing security features are inadequate, and the company is working to enhance them. Especially given that Zoom stands to profit enormously from the greatly increased use of their product during the pandemic, the company has the resources and ethical obligation to improve their product’s security to the greatest possible extent.
When it comes to the end users, however, blaming them for not configuring the software correctly is unhelpful at best. Many people are using this technology for the first time, often unwillingly, forced by their employers or clients to move in-person classes and meetings to a real-time streaming format. Even when the meeting hosts follow the setup instructions exactly — and I know from my past employment in tech support that many users cannot do this — they might fall victim to an unexpected exploit or social engineering, as was apparently the case in the Berkeley school invasion linked above.
I am describing these incidents as “invasions” because that is exactly what they are. If a streaker ran into a physical classroom in Berkeley shouting racist slurs, the teacher and students would most likely be traumatized, not amused. The participants in a meeting are every bit as human whether they are sitting together in a common room or separately in their homes, and “virtual” attacks should be condemned just as strongly as those carried out in person.
The reason we don’t often hear of screaming people running into physical classrooms or living rooms is not simply because those spaces have better security than online locations. As the saying goes, locks are for honest people. They are a deterrent to casual misdeeds; they don’t keep out determined invaders.
Online invasions are easier and more appealing not only because they can be done remotely, but because there are far fewer consequences for this behavior. Even if the victim is sophisticated enough to collect useful data from an attack, tracking down the perpetrators can be very difficult, and our legal system has not caught up with the digital age. Hardening digital security, either by the software developers or the end users, is not enough to keep out determined assholes who view a global quarantine as a great opportunity to spread their hateful views without leaving the comfort of their homes.
Regardless, filling our courtrooms and jails with these kinds of offenders is not an effective strategy, especially during a public health emergency. What we need is more public shaming of people who espouse bigoted views, and more education on why expressing these views is harmful to marginalized people. These strategies won’t stop Zoombombing overnight, but neither will improving the software’s security settings. The same applies to any online meeting platform, not just Zoom.
As long as hateful, ignorant views are tolerated in our society, people will continue spreading these views in any way that they can. Invading another’s space with shouted epithets, whether in person or over the Internet, cannot be claimed as “free speech”, either ethically or constitutionally. Let’s work toward a society where hate speech is truly eliminated, not through laws and locks, but through education and understanding.