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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)

Business

Instagram Testing New Tools To Verify Users Are Over 18

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The new tools include AI software that analyzes video footage of a person’s face to verify their age.


Instagram Cracks Down on Underage Users

Instagram is testing new features in the United States to verify the age of users who claim to be over 18 years old. 

According to a statement from Instagram’s parent company, Meta, the tools will only apply to users who seek to change their age from under 18 to over 18. The platform previously asked for users to upload their ID for verification in this process, but on Thursday, it announced there will be two new methods for confirming age. 

One of the strategies was referred to as “social vouching.” Using this option, people can request that three mutual Instagram followers over the age of 18 confirm their age on the platform.

The other method allows users to upload a video selfie of themselves to be analyzed by Yoti, third-party age verification software. Yoti then estimates a person’s age based on their facial features, sends that estimate to Meta, and both companies delete the recording. 

According to Meta, Yoti cannot recognize or identify a face based on the recording and only looks at the pixels to determine an age. Meta said that Yoti “is the leading age verification provider for several industries around the world,” as it has been used and promoted by social media companies and governmental organizations. 

Still, some question how effective it will be for this specific use. According to The Verge, while the software does have a high accuracy rate among certain age groups and demographics, data also shows it is less precise for female faces and faces with darker skin tones. 

Issues With Kids on Instagram

Meta argues that it is important for Instagram to be able to discern who is and is not 18, as it impacts what version of the app users have access to.

“We’re testing this so we can make sure teens and adults are in the right experience for their age group,” the company’s statement said. 

“When we know if someone is a teen (13-17), we provide them with age-appropriate experiences like defaulting them into private accounts, preventing unwanted contact from adults they don’t know and limiting the options advertisers have to reach them with ads,” it continued. 

These changes come as Instagram has been facing increased pressure to address the way its app impacts younger users. 

Only children 13 and older are allowed to have Instagram accounts, but the service has faced criticism for not doing enough to enforce this. A 2021 survey of high school students found that nearly half of the respondents had created a social media account of some kind before they were 13.

The company also recently came under fire after The Wall Street Journal published internal Meta documents revealing that the company knew that it harmed teens, including by worsening body image issues for young girls and women.

See what others are saying: (The Verge) (The Wall Street Journal) (Axios)

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Elon Musk Threatens to Fire Employees Unless They Work in Person Full-Time

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The world’s richest man in the world previously suggested that the popularity of remote work has “tricked people into thinking that you don’t actually need to work hard.”


“If You Don’t Show up, We Will Assume You Have Resigned”

On Wednesday, Electrek published two leaked emails apparently sent from Elon Musk to Tesla’s executive staff threatening to fire them if they don’t return to work in person.

“Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla,” he wrote. “This is less than we ask of factory workers.”

“If there are particularly exceptional contributors for whom this is impossible, I will review and approve those exceptions directly,” he continued.

Musk then clarified that the “office” must be a main office, not a “remote branch office unrelated to the job duties.”

“There are of course companies that don’t require this, but when was the last time they shipped a great new product? It’s been a while,” he wrote in the second email.

Later on Wednesday, a Twitter user asked Musk to comment on the idea that coming into work is an antiquated concept.

He replied, “They should pretend to work somewhere else.”

The Billionaire Pushes People to Work Harder

Musk has a history of pressuring his employees and criticizing them for not working hard enough.

“All the Covid stay-at-home stuff has tricked people into thinking that you don’t actually need to work hard. Rude awakening inbound,” he tweeted last month.

Three economists told Insider that remote work during the pandemic did not damage productivity.

“Most of the evidence shows that productivity has increased while people stayed at home,” Natacha Postel-Vinay, an economic and financial historian at the London School of Economics, told the outlet.

Musk is notorious for criticizing lockdown mandates and went so far as to call them “fascist” during a Tesla earnings call in April 2020.

Not long before that, Tesla announced that it would keep its Fremont, California plant open in defiance of shelter-in-place orders across the state.

In an interview with The Financial Times last month, Musk blasted American workers for trying to stay home, comparing them to their Chinese counterparts whom he said work harder.

“They won’t just be burning the midnight oil. They will be burning the 3 a.m. oil,” he said. “They won’t even leave the factory type of thing, whereas in America people are trying to avoid going to work at all.”

That same day, Fortune published an article detailing how Tesla workers in Shanghai work 12-hour shifts, six days out of the week, sometimes sleeping on the factory floor.

See what others are saying: (CNBC) (Electrek) (Business Insider)

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Apple Raises Worker Pay as Unions Gain Ground

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The company’s vice president of people and retail was caught trying to dissuade employees from unionizing in a leaked video.


Labor Squeezes Apple into Submission

Apple announced Wednesday that its U.S. corporate and retail employees will see a pay increase later this year, with starting wages bumped from $20 per hour to $22, though stores in certain regions may get more depending on market conditions.

Starting salaries are also expected to increase.

“Supporting and retaining the best team members in the world enables us to deliver the best, most innovative, products and services for our customers,” an Apple spokesman said in a statement. “This year as part of our annual performance review process, we’re increasing our overall compensation budget.”

Some workers were told their annual reviews would be moved up three months and that their pay increases would take effect in early July, according to a memo reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Furthermore, they were told the increased compensation budget would be in addition to pay increases and special awards already received within the past year.

Feeling squeezed by low unemployment and high inflation, tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have changed their compensation structures in recent weeks to pay workers more, and Apple is the latest to bend to market pressure.

Unions Gaining Traction

On Wednesday, The Verge received a leaked video of Apple’s vice president of people and retail, Deirdre O’Brien, explicitly dissuading employees from unionizing.

“I worry about what it would mean to put another organization in the middle of our relationship,” she said. “An organization that does not have a deep understanding of Apple or our business. And most importantly one that I do not believe shares our commitment to you.”

She vocalized more anti-union talking points, like the idea that the company will not be able to make important decisions as quickly with a collective bargaining agreement.

O’Brien has been personally visiting retail stores over the past few weeks in an apparent bid to combat budding union activity.

Apple stores in three locations — New York, Georgia, and Maryland — are currently pushing to unionize, with the latter two set to vote in elections on June 2 and 15, respectively. In response to these efforts, Apple has hired anti-union lawyers, given managers anti-union scripts, and held anti-union captive audience meetings.

In the United States, unionized workers make about 13.2% more than non-unionized workers in the same sector, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

As of Wednesday, Apple’s shares had fallen 21% since the start of the year, but sales grew 34% last year to almost $300 billion.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (CNBC) (The Verge)

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