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Zoom’s Sudden Popularity Draws Attention to App’s Privacy Risks

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  • As more and more people use Zoom for virtual gatherings, several have raised concerns about privacy issues in the app.
  • One issue is that meeting hosts have the ability to save meetings to a cloud and monitor some behavior of attendees.
  • Many using the app have also experienced “zoombombers,” which are trolls making their way into calls, showing graphic and explicit content. 
  • Zoom has responded to one major criticism: its ability to share data with Facebook. Vice’s Motherboard found that the app could do so on Thursday and by Friday, Zoom got rid of that code.

Host Capabilities

As video chatting app Zoom increases in popularity while students and employees work from home, critics are afraid the app may have glaring privacy issues that users are unaware of. 

Zoom has become widely-used since millions of people across the country were forced inside because of the coronavirus. From meetings, to lectures to virtual boozy Sunday brunches, it has become the app of choice for video chatting in quarantine. Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson has used it to conduct government meetings in the U.K.

Calls on the app can be set up by a “host” who initiates scheduling the call, but many allege that these hosts are given too much power on Zoom. The app offers tools that, depending on the subscription tier-one belongs to, allow hosts to access what some may consider private information. 

One feature called “attention tracking” lets the host of a meeting see if an attendee does not have Zoom in focus for more than 30 seconds. This means that if an attendee is active in a window other than Zoom– to look at other documents, message a colleague, or watch the world collapse live on Twitter for 30 seconds– the host is made aware of this. They don’t see what the attendee is specifically doing, just that the Zoom window has become inactive. 

Still, the idea of this happening while you could be completely unaware has made a lot of people uneasy. Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports  said this kind of feature should not exist. 

“If you’re teleworking on a home computer, your boss shouldn’t be able to monitor what’s on your screen,” he said in an article on Consumer Reports. “Zoom should get rid of attention tracking mode, or at the very least make participants aware when it’s on.” 

And this isn’t the only thing hosts can do that some see as potentially dangerous. There are several options that allow Zoom meetings to be recorded. One that some find particularly concerning is cloud recording, which is exclusively for paid subscribers and can only be done by hosts. It allows the video, audio, and a transcription of the meeting to be stored in the Zoom cloud. From there it can be accessed and downloaded by authorized employees at a company so that people who were not part of the meeting can read or watch it back. 

“Zoombombing”

Zoom’s issues extend past the powers a host has. There have also been reports about trolls being able to hack into Zoom meetings, something that has been called “zoombombing.” According to a report from TechCrunch, zoombombers are hopping into meetings and showing graphic content like pornography or violent imagery.

In one case, a public Zoom Work From Home Happy Hour was attacked with sexually explicit video and images. Despite the hosts’ many attempts to boot the zoombomber out of the meeting, they were able to re-enter under a new name. To stop this from happening, the hosts had to end the call.

That’s not the only time something like this has happened. NBC talked to a couple that read children’s books to kids stuck at home via Zoom. Ruha Benjamin, an associate professor of African American studies at Princeton University, was leading the call and told NBC that while she was reading to the kids, an image of a “chubby white man in a thong” popped up.

At first, she did not know if everyone could see it, but then a male voice began to repeatedly say the n-word for all 40 kids on the call to hear. She then had to shut the call down and told the outlet, “we knew it was a malicious, targeted thing. My husband and I are both African American.”

Virtual classrooms, religious services, and various other places have also been targets of this kind of harassment. Zoombombers have the ability to do this for a couple of reasons. First, if a Zoom call is public or if the link has been made public, anyone who wants to join can. Second, Zoom’s default settings allow anyone in a call to get screen time. A host does not need to grant an attendee access. Some of this can be changed in Zoom’s advanced settings if a user knows to look for it, but otherwise, this is the way the app will do things on its own.

Entrepreneur Alex Miller shared a Twitter thread giving tips on how to best protect your Zoom calls from hackings like this. 

You can disable the “join before host” feature so that no one can enter a chat and do something inappropriate without the host knowing. Zoom users can also add a co-host so that multiple people can remain on guard. Screen sharing can also be changed to host only.

On top of this, users can also disable file transfers and prevent removed people from joining the call again.

Info Sharing With Facebook

Zoom has also responded to another issue that was found within the app. A Thursday report from Vice’s Motherboard found that Zoom could send data to a company that is perhaps most well known for data privacy controversies: Facebook. This could happen even if you don’t even have a Facebook account.

One day after this report came out, Zoom removed the code that allowed this. According to Motherboard, Zoom would connect to Facebook’s Graph API, which is the main way developers get data in or out of Facebook. Zoom would then notify Facebook when a user opens the app and give details on the device they are doing so from, including the model, location, phone carrier, and a “unique advertiser identifier created by the user’s device which companies can use to target a user with advertisements.” Nothing in their privacy policy explicitly addressed this. 

When Zoom told Motherboard they were getting rid of this code, they explained that the issue had to do with their SDK, or software development kit, which is a bunch of code that can be used to implement app features, but can also send data to third parties.

“Zoom takes its users’ privacy extremely seriously,” they said in a statement to Motherboard. “We originally implemented the ‘Login with Facebook’ feature using the Facebook SDK in order to provide our users with another convenient way to access our platform. However, we were recently made aware that the Facebook SDK was collecting unnecessary device data.”

Zoom also confirmed that the information being collected was not personal user information, but device information, which lined up with Motherboard’s findings. 

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (Forbes) (BBC)

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Google Is Banning “Sugar Dating” Apps as Part of New Sexual Content Restrictions

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The change essentially targets apps like Elite Millionaire Singles, SeekingArrangements, Spoil, and tons of other sugar dating platforms.


Sugar Dating Crackdown

Google has announced a series of policy changes to its Android Play Store that include a ban on sugar dating apps starting September 1.

The company’s Play Store policies already prohibit apps that promote “services that may be interpreted as providing sexual acts in exchange for compensation.”

Now, it has updated its wording to specifically include “compensated dating or sexual arrangements where one participant is expected or implied to provide money, gifts or financial support to another participant (‘sugar dating’).”

The change essentially targets apps like Elite Millionaire Singles, SeekingArrangements, Spoil, and tons of other sugar dating platforms currently available for download.

Search results for “Sugar Daddy” on Google’s Play Store

What Prompted the Change?

The company didn’t explain why it’s going after sugar dating apps, but some reports have noted that the move comes amid crackdowns of online sex work following the introduction of the FOSTA-SESTA legislation in 2018, which was meant to curb sex trafficking.

That’s because FOSTA-SESTA created an exception to Section 230 that means website publishers can be held liable if third parties are found to be promoting prostitution, including consensual sex work, on their platforms.

It’s worth noting that just because the apps will no longer be available on the Play Store doesn’t mean the sugar dating platforms themselves are going anywhere. Sugar daters will still be able to access them through their web browsers, or they can just sideload their apps from other places.

Still, the change is likely going to make the use of these sites a little less convenient.

See what others are saying: (The Verge)(Engadget)(Tech Times)

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Activision Blizzard CEO Apologizes for “Tone Deaf” Response to Harassment Suit, Unsatisfied Employees Stage Walkout

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Organizers of a Wednesday walkout say they “will not return to silence” and “will not be placated by the same processes that led us to this point.”


CEO Apologizes

After a week of growing criticism against its workplace culture, the CEO of Activision Blizzard has finally apologized for how the company first responded to allegations of sexual harassment and assault in its offices.

“Our initial responses to the issues we face together, and to your concerns, were, quite frankly, tone deaf,” CEO Bobby Kotick said Tuesday in a letter to employees. “It is imperative that we acknowledge all perspectives and experiences and respect the feelings of those who have been mistreated in any way. I am sorry that we did not provide the right empathy and understanding.” 

In its initial response, Activision Blizzard denounced the disturbing allegations brought forth in a lawsuit by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) as “irresponsible.” The company added that it came from “unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out of California.”

But many current and former employees soon disputed that claim. In fact, at the time, more than 2,500 had signed their name to an open letter condemning the company for its response, which they described as “abhorrent and insulting” to survivors. 

In his letter, Kotick promised employees that Blizzard will take “swift action to be the compassionate, caring company you came to work for.”

As part of a series of new policies, he said the company will now offer additional employee support and listening sessions, as well as potential personnel changes to leadership.

“Anyone found to have impeded the integrity of our processes for evaluating claims and imposing appropriate consequences will be terminated,” he added.

Kotick also said Blizzard will add “compliance resources” to ensure that leadership is adhering to diverse hiring directives.

Lastly, he promised that the company will remove “inappropriate” in-game content. In a similar statement on Tuesday, Blizzard’s World of Warcraft team said it’s actively working to remove “references that are not appropriate for our world,” though it didn’t specify what those references were. 

It now appears that many of the references being removed are of the game’s former Senior Creative Director, Alex Afrasiabi, who is cited in the lawsuit as someone who hit on and made unwanted advances at female employees. Moreover, the suit also directly accuses him of groping one woman.

“Afrasiabi was so known to engage in harassment of females that his suite” during company events “was nicknamed the “[Cosby] Suite” after alleged rapist Bill [Cosby],” the suit claims. 

Blizzard Walkout

Organizers of a company-wide employee walkout, which was announced Tuesday and occurred Wednesday, still argue that Kotick’s latest message doesn’t address their larger concerns.

Among those are “the end of forced arbitration for all employees,” “worker participation in oversight of hiring and promotion policies,” “the need for greater pay transparency to ensure equality,” and “employee selection of a third party to audit HR and other company processes.”

“We will not return to silence; we will not be placated by the same processes that led us to this point.”

Ahead of the walkout, Blizzard reportedly encouraged its own employees to attend, saying those workers would face no repercussions and “can have paid time off” during the demonstration, according to The Verge. 

See what others are saying: (The Verge) (Polygon) (CNBC)

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Frito-Lay Workers End Nearly Three-Week Strike After Securing Higher Wages and a Guaranteed Day Off

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Employees also negotiated an end to “suicide shifts,” which are two 12-hour shifts that are only eight hours apart. 


Strike Ends

Hundreds of Frito-Lay workers in Kansas have put an end to their nearly three-week strike over alleged mandatory overtime assignments that resulted in extremely long work weeks and so-called “suicide shifts.”

The term “suicide shift” refers to working two 12-hour shifts with only eight hours of rest in between. That can be especially hard on employees who claim to have worked up to 84 hours in a single week. For context, that’s 12 hours a day without a single day off. 

One of the reasons workers have found themselves taking on more hours and days at plants is because consumer snacking has increased during the pandemic — so much so that Frito Lay’s recent net growth has exceeded every single one of its targets. That’s why at one point, the striking workers asked consumers to boycott Frito-Lay products in a show of solidarity.

The strikes began July 5 and concluded on July 23 following an agreement reached by union leaders and PepsiCo., Frito-Lay’s parent company. Under that deal, all employees will see a 4% wage increase over the next two years. They’ll also be guaranteed at least one day off a week, and the company will no longer schedule workers with only eight hours off between shifts. 

Following the agreement, Anthony Shelton, the president of the union representing the workers, said that they’ve “shown the world that union working people can stand up against the largest food companies in the world and claim victory for themselves, their families and their communities.”

“We believe our approach to resolving this strike demonstrates how we listen to our employees, and when concerns are raised, they are taken seriously and addressed,” Frito-Lay said in a statement. “Looking ahead, we look forward to continuing to build on what we have accomplished together based on mutual trust and respect.”

The Long, Bitter Road to an Agreement

When the workers went on strike, they lobbed several very disturbing accusations against Frito-Lay. 

In fact, the workers were pushed so hard that according to one employee who wrote in the Topeka Capital-Journal, “When a co-worker collapsed and died, you had us move the body and put in another co-worker to keep the line going.”

While Frito-Lay dismissed this account as “entirely false,” other employees continued to protest conditions in the plants. Many even argued the 90-degree temperatures they had to stand in to protest outside were preferable to the 100-degree-plus temperatures and smokey conditions in the factories. 

During the strikes, PepsiCo. actively disputed that its employees are overworked, describing their claims as “grossly exaggerated” and saying, “Our records indicate 19 employees worked 84 hours in a given work week in 2021, with 16 of those as a result of employees volunteering for overtime and only 3 being required to work.” 

It also said an initial concession more than met the striking employees’ terms, but the union backing those workers disagreed, and further negotiations were held until the final deal was reached. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (Business Insider)

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