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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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Robinhood Crypto Trading Crashes Twice as Dogecoin Multiplies in Value, Enraging Users

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  • Robinhood users found themselves unable to buy or sell cryptocurrency Thursday night, an issue reminiscent of the app’s decision to restrict GameStop trades earlier this year.
  • While Robinhood resolved the problem within a matter of hours, it came amid a massive rally on Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency that started out as a joke. The app’s crypto services briefly went down again Friday morning as the rally continued.  
  • Robinhood has denied that its crypto trading outages were an intentional effort to drive down Dogecoin prices and instead blamed the outages on “unprecedented demand for Robinhood Crypto services.”
  • By Friday morning, Dogecoin briefly soared to $0.45, more than 400% of the value it had at the beginning of the week and more than 4,500% of the value it had at the beginning of the year.

Robinhood Crashes Amid Dogecoin Rally

The joke cryptocurrency Dogecoin has surged more than 400% this week alone, but around 10 p.m. EST Thursday night, the free-to-trade app Robinhood tweeted that it was “experiencing issues with crypto trading.” In turn, that caused many of the app’s users to find themselves unable to execute trades.

Dogecoin first began to spike Tuesday ahead of the market debut of the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, which raised $86 billion in its first day of trading. That morning, one Dogecoin amounted to about $0.07. By midnight, it had doubled in value. Those gains continued Thursday evening when Dogecoin spiked to around $0.33.

That may not seem like much, but if a person invested $1,000 in Dogecoin when it was selling for around $0.01 at the beginning of the year, by Thursday evening, that person would be sitting on a small fortune of around $33,000 before taxes. 

Robinhood Users Angry Yet Again 

Many Robinhood users found themselves frustrated when they were unable to sell off their existing dogecoins, especially since the cryptocurrency’s value was rapidly falling. 

In fact, within the matter of just over an hour, it had dipped to around $0.25. Using the last example above, that would mean thousands of dollars of missed opportunity.

“Are you going to cover my account?!?” one user asked Robinhood when she found herself unable to sell her dogecoins. “This is a technical error, not my own risk. Ive been trying to execute this transaction for almost two hours! None of my crypto comes up!” 

This is not Robinhood’s only bout with controversy. Earlier this year, the company infamously blocked its users from buying GameStop stock during a frenzy that sent shares from under $20 to nearly $500 at one point; however, Robinhood still allowed users to sell their existing shares — a move that even if it lacked the intention, had the effect of attempting to drive share prices for GameStop down. 

Though CEO Vlad Tenev later argued that the company “had no choice” but to restrict buying, Robinhood’s decision nonetheless sparked the ire of its users and even prompted Congressional investigations.

Many Robinhood users were quick to point that out Thursday when they once again found themselves unable to execute trades. Some even accused the company of more nefarious intentions. 

Service Restored… Until It Went Down Again 

At 11:46 p.m. Thursday night, Robinhood tweeted that crypto trading had been “fully” restored.

“Like others, we were experiencing unprecedented demand for Robinhood Crypto services, which created issues with crypto trading,” the company said. “We’ve resolved the issue and apologize for the inconvenience.

Multiple times since Thursday evening, the company has denied that it intentionally halted crypto trading to affect Dogecoin prices. 

“Unprecedented demand for Robinhood Crypto services created temporary issues with crypto trading,” a Robinhood spokesperson told the New York Post Friday. “That’s it, plain and simple.” 

On Friday morning, Dogecoin went on to spike at a current 52-week high of $0.45; however, it soon dipped back into the mid- to upper-thirty-cent range, where it remained around 3 p.m. EST.

Meanwhile, amid the surging demand, Robinhood experienced yet another crypto outage around 10:30 a.m. EST Friday. Just before 11 a.m., it said that trading had been restored for most customers. 

See what others are saying: (New York Post) (Business Insider) (Coindesk)

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Child Safety Advocates Urge Facebook To Scrap Plans for Instagram Kids

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  • Nearly 100 child safety experts and international organizations sent a letter to Facebook Thursday criticizing its plans to develop an Instagram app for children under 13.
  • Facebook claims the app will offer parental controls and is meant to create a safer space for kids, who are often lying about their age to access the normal version of Instagram.
  • Still, critics point out that children already on Instagram are unlikely to switch to a kids version. Many also cited concerns about screen time, mental health, and privacy, arguing that younger children are not ready for such a platform.
  • U.S. Lawmakers expressed similar concerns earlier this month, saying, “Facebook has an obligation to ensure that any new platforms or projects targeting children put those users’ welfare first, and we are skeptical that Facebook is prepared to fulfill this obligation.”

Instagram for Kids

An international group of 35 organizations and 64 experts, coordinated by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, released a letter Thursday urging Facebook to abandon its plans to release an Instagram app for kids under 13-years old.

Plans for Instagram Kids have been public for about a month after Buzzfeed News obtained emails about the app in mid-March. Since then, there have been widespread concerns about how such an app could affect children.

Thursday’s letter argues that a version of Instagram targeting under-13-year-olds raises concerns about privacy, screen time, mental health, self-esteem, and commercial pressure. Stephanie Otway, a spokesperson for Facebook, said the company understands the concerns presented by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“We agree that any experience we develop must prioritize their safety and privacy, and we will consult with experts in child development, child safety and mental health, and privacy advocates to inform it,” she said.

“The reality is that kids are online. They want to connect with their family and friends, have fun and learn, and we want to help them do that in a way that is safe and age-appropriate. We also want to find practical solutions to the ongoing industry problem of kids lying about their age to access apps,” Otway added, noting the reality of how many children interact with age-gated apps.

Unlikely To Stop Children From Joining Regular Instagram

The idea that children would just switch to Instagram Kids received pushback from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. In fact, the group’s executive director, Josh Golin, pointed out that most kids who are currently on Instagram are between 10 and 12-years-old, and they likely wouldn’t migrate over to Instagram Kids because it will be perceived as “babyish and not cool enough.”

The children this will appeal to will be much younger kids,” Golin explained. “So they are not swapping out an unsafe version of Instagram for a safer version. They are creating new demand from a new audience that’s not ready for any type of Instagram product.”

It’s unknown exactly how the app would work, but it would feature content similar to what is allowed in other age-appropriate apps, such as YouTube Kids. One of the few details given out so far is that Instagram Kids will be ad-free and feature parental control options.

Concerns over Instagram Kids has also come from lawmakers. On April 5th Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), alongside Representatives Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) and Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressing concerns that “children are a uniquely vulnerable population online, and images of kids are highly sensitive data.”

“Facebook has an obligation to ensure that any new platforms or projects targeting children put those users’ welfare first, and we are skeptical that Facebook is prepared to fulfill this obligation.”

See what others are saying: (TechCrunch) (BBC) (NBC News)

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Retail Sales Jump Amid Stimulus Spending, Unemployment Claims Plunge To Pandemic Low

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  • The Commerce Department released a report Thursday recording a 9.8% spike in retail sales for the month of March.
  • That surge was largely driven by stimulus check spending, with restaurant, sporting goods, clothing and accessory, and auto sales all being among the top-performing sectors in retail for the month. 
  • Coupled with that news, the Labor Department reported that 576,000 unemployment claims were filed last month — a pandemic low. 
  • That figure is still significantly higher than the roughly 200,000 weekly unemployment claims filed before the pandemic. 

Retail Sales Spike

U.S. retail sales for the month of March jumped 9.8% from February, according to a Thursday morning report from the Commerce Department.

That spike is largely thanks to the most recent round of stimulus checks from Congress.

March was the best month of retail spending since May of last year, which at the time saw an 18.3% gain following the first wave of stimulus checks.  

Sales in the bar and restaurant industry rose 13.4%, making them among the retail sectors that saw the biggest spikes last month. That’s largely a result of relaxed lockdowns stemming from the country’s current pace of around three million vaccinations a day. Meanwhile, sporting goods spending rose 23.5%, clothing and accessory sales rose 18.3%, and motor vehicle parts and dealer sales rose 15.1%.

“Spending will almost certainly drop back in April as some of the stimulus boost wears off,” wrote Michael Pearce, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, “but with the vaccination rollout proceeding at a rapid pace and households finances in strong shape, we expect overall consumption growth to continue rebounding rapidly in the second quarter too.” 

Unemployment Hits Pandemic Low

The retail sales data came around the same time that the Labor Department released this past week’s unemployment figures, which dropped to a new pandemic low of 576,000 claims. 

That’s a massive difference from almost exactly a year ago when 6 million people filed for unemployment in a single week. It’s also a significant decline from the 769,000 people that filed jobless claims last week, especially since some analysts had predicted there would be around 700,000 jobs lost with this week’s report.

That said, unemployment claims are still much higher than the around 200,000 a week that were being filed prior to pandemic closures.

“You’re still not popping champagne corks,”  Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton, said according to The New York Times. “I will breathe again — and breathe easy again — once we get these number[s] back down in the 200,000 range.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNBC) (Fox Business)

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