Video conferencing app Zoom is facing increased scrutiny from privacy advocates and lawmakers who warn the app’s privacy settings aren’t secure enough to handle the millions of users flocking to its service during the coronavirus pandemic.
With public gatherings banned and millions working from home amid the global health crisis, Zoom has skyrocketed in popularity, becoming a household name overnight.
But the app has a history of privacy concerns, prompting New York Attorney General Letitia James to send a letter to the company on Monday asking if it had increased its security measures due to the surge of traffic on its networks.
The letter, which describes Zoom as “an essential and valuable” platform, outlines several concerns about the company’s privacy practices, noting that the company had been slow to address security flaws in the past, potentially allowing hackers to gain access to users’ webcams.
Last week, the company was forced to apologize to users after it was revealed that Zoom’s iPhone app was sending data to Facebook, even when the user did not have a Facebook account.
That data included the user’s location and the device’s advertiser identifier information, a unique ID that allows companies send targeted ads.
Zoom has also come under fire for several security flaws, putting users at risk of being hacked, including one found in January that would have allowed hackers to join a video meeting uninvited, giving them access to any files or chat information shared during the meeting. That flaw has since been fixed.
This week, the company also released a blog post explaining how to prevent malicious users from “Zoombombing” public meetings, which allow anyone with a link to the meeting to join.
Zoom’s default setting also allows any meeting participant to share their screen without permission from an event’s host, allowing malicious users to take over meetings to broadcast inappropriate content.
CTVNews.ca contacted the company for comment, but the request was not immediately returned.
Though the company is taking steps to educate users about ways to keep their meetings secure during the COVID-19 uptick, privacy and security experts fear the company is not doing enough.
“We’ve become more vulnerable and dependent. In fact, we’re at the mercy of technology more now than we’ve ever been,” Karen Eltis, privacy expert and law professor at the University of Ottawa, told CTVNews.ca by phone Wednesday.
“This COVID-19 period has exposed how little choice we have in terms of accepting terms and conditions or privacy policies. Unless you're willing to entirely distance yourself from work and social for a very lengthy period of time, we have no other choice than to defer to these standard agreements.”
Like many companies, Zoom claims the right to collect and store users’ personal data, including videos, transcripts, instant messages, files and documents.
Eltis says concerns surrounding Zoom highlight the need for change when it comes to Canadian privacy laws.
Social media and tech companies, she notes, have changed the way privacy and consent laws work because the services themselves are international.
“It's interesting to familiarize yourself [with a platform’s terms and conditions]. It's interesting to know that your data will be shared. But when you have no power to do anything about it, I think that creates a false sense of security,” she said.
Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian said she is encouraged to see government bodies putting Zoom to task, especially given it’s rise to fame, noting that it will force the company to take precautions more seriously.
“It will force zoom, who has been very slow in addressing the security flaws, to really accelerate their movement is terms of strengthening security,” Cavoukian told CTVNews.ca by phone Wednesday.
“I don’t want to discourage people from using it, but I want to keep the pressure on Zoom to strengthen their security and privacy. They need to know people really care about this.”
WHAT CAN I DO TO PROTECT MY PRIVACY?
Both Eltis and Cavoukian agree, services like Zoom are essential in a time like this. But the experts note that there are steps consumers can take to protect themselves.
“You need to lock your front door, right,” Eltis said, noting that the first step users should take is creating a secure password for their meetings and encouraging attendees not to share any public meeting links on social media.
Eltis also notes that users can choose not to use certain features of the app, such as the video function or chat feature, although she notes both are popular right now.
“Take one minute and ask the question, I would like the strongest measures possible to protect my privacy, can you point me in the right direction,” Cavoukian noted.
“If you do that with Zoom and anyone else online you will get additional measures that you may not have realized before.”