Following uptick in ‘Zoombombing,’ platform adds enhanced security features to deter attacks

virtual hate

Zoom to step up reporting mechanisms, moderator tools as part of refocus on privacy and security

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Rabbi Haim Ovadia leads a virtual morning minyan via Zoom in Potomac Maryland on April 6, 2020.

With gatherings of all types shifting online, many groups are turning to Zoom and other video conferencing platforms to host programming. The switch to digital has led to a new form of online harassment known as “Zoombombing,” in which harassers join group video calls to spread offensive, inappropriate and otherwise disruptive content. Jewish groups in particular have become a frequent target.

Jewish groups targeted: Jewish gatherings, including Shabbat services, Seders, Torah study sessions, JCC classes, Yeshiva University meetings, funerals and other public speeches and events have all fallen victim to Zoombombs. The infiltrators, including some well-known white supremacists, displayed swastikas and Nazi imagery, launched into profane antisemitic rants, shared antisemitic messages and memes, displayed firearms, showed pornography and even exposed their genitals. 

New updates: Zoom’s Chief Product Officer Oded Gal joined an ADL webinar this week to talk about the platform’s new security measures, including a new feature that gives moderators quick access to security functions mid-meeting, with an option to quickly expel disrupters. The company has also begun tracking users’ IP addresses to prevent expelled Zoombombers from returning under a new name or account. 

Focus on security: Starting April 1, Zoom put a halt on all other product development activities to focus exclusively on security and privacy for 90 days, Gal said. In addition, Zoom’s CEO is holding weekly public webinars on the platform’s latest updates and features.

Pro-tips: David Sifry, ADL’s vice president for its Center for Technology and Society, recommended that meeting organizers record meetings from start to finish to establish a forensic trail in the event issues do occur. Sifry also suggested having multiple meeting co-hosts, which will allow organizers to react more quickly if multiple Zoombombers enter. He emphasized that organizers should check their security settings before meetings start and practice mock Zoombombing scenarios.

Upcoming: Over the weekend, Zoom plans to roll out an update allowing users to report Zoombombing incidents directly in the app during meetings, according to Gal. As of April 19, the company will stop using data centers in China to facilitate meetings by default, unless users specifically choose to allow the program to use Chinese data centers.

Mix of perpetrators: Both trolls and extremists have engaged in Zoombombing, Sifry said. Perpetrators have been communicating and, in some cases, coordinating Zoombombing on a variety of platforms, including Twitter and Reddit, as well as platforms like 4Chan, 8Kun (the successor site to 8Chan) and Telegram. Sifry said it can often be unclear if Zoombombers are trolls or extremists, as both frequently use hateful language.

Security features in action: During an AJC webinar Monday featuring actor Josh Malina reading Passover stories to children, an individual sent a string of profane antisemitic messages to the Zoom chat. Because AJC was using some of Zoom’s security features, only the organizers and Malina — not the entire audience — saw the messages.

“The main feeling I felt was this kind of sense of retroactive relief, like ‘Boy, I’m really glad that we protected ourselves,’” said AJC global director of young leadership Seffi Kogen. “And then there was a moment where I was like, if we hadn’t, this would be really scary.”

Necessary steps: Kogen encouraged groups organizing events on Zoom to implement its security features. “The peace of mind that you gain from that is really invaluable,” he said, comparing these measures to security checks that some synagogues require upon entry. “The same principles apply when our communities gather online… If that’s the step we have to take to stop neo-Nazis from screaming at our children, that’s the step we should take.”

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