How to protect yourself and your students from Zoom
A comprehensive layperson’s guide to the tech ethics of online education for students, instructors, and administrators at all stages of the educational system
(Last updated Nov 18, 2020)
What is this document?
So your school or university has moved online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and you’re wondering about best practices for teaching online! Maybe your institution has already told you that you will be teaching class using Zoom, or another video conference software. It’s great that your school is taking the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing seriously, and is trying to find technologies to help you teach your students at a distance. But in many of our conversations about best practices in online education, we haven’t been talking much about cybersecurity, data ethics, or non-consensual surveillance. Zoom is a notoriously insecure software made by a privately owned company, and part of its business model involves collecting data on its users and then (very likely) selling that data to other private companies. Zoom’s private ownership also has complete control over the platform and what can be hosted on it, giving them virtually unrestricted ability to monitor and censor Zoom classes and events. In this guide, I’ll go through some of the major issues and risks of using Zoom (privacy concerns, accessibility, hacks and exploits, data mining, and surveillance) and make some suggestions about how you can protect yourself and your students from these dangers.
This guide is divided into a few sections. The first one, “Why Should I Be Worried About Zoom” explains some of the major issues with Zoom as a software and a company. The second section is aimed mostly at teachers, or anyone hosting online classes. The third section is aimed mostly at students, or anyone participating in online classes. The fourth section, “What Else Can I Do?” discusses some ways to take organized action to put pressure on Zoom to improve their policies. Though this guide is written specifically for people at schools using Zoom, a lot of the principles in it are also relevant to other video call setups.
I don’t mean to argue here that no one should use Zoom ever. Online class - let’s face it - is just not going to be as good as in person class, all ways of doing remote teaching will have major issues, and you might not be in a position to choose what software you use to teach your classes. But, even if it’s the only choice, there are better and worse ways to Zoom, and there are still some things you should definitely not use Zoom for. Rather than tell you not to use Zoom at all, I wrote this guide to help you use Zoom safely, and to assist you in communicating about using Zoom in a way that respects your students' privacy and autonomy over their data.
Please share this document widely with your colleagues or fellow students. While many universities and schools are circulating tutorials about how to use Zoom for online teaching, most of those guides don’t touch on cybersecurity, or the technological ethics of video-conferencing software, so it is up to us to make sure this information gets around.
Who’s Writing This?
This document was created by Mehitabel Glenhaber, currently a PhD student in Communications at USC Annenberg, and previously a Media Studies and Science, Technology, and Society researcher at MIT. As someone who’s recently played both the student and instructor roles, I hope I can speak to the experiences from both sides of the classroom. Email me at [email protected] if you have questions about or additions to this document.
A quick summary of the main points in this Guide
* Zoom is gaining a worrying monopoly over education - which fits into a standard pattern of “extend, engulf, extinguish” which internet mega-corporations use to create monopolies, eliminate competition, and jack up prices.
* Zoom has a history of censorship - both in service of world governments, and voluntarily - which poses serious threats to intellectual freedom.
* Zoom has a history of shady data practices. One company having access to the data of almost every teacher and student participating in online education during the coronavirus pandemic should scare you.
* Zoom has a history of privacy bugs, and, because the software is so popular, every hacker in the world has their eyes on it now. Even if you trust what Zoom will do with your data, you should not trust them to keep your data safe from other people who you trust even less.
* Remember that alternatives to Zoom exist: Jitsi, Discord, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Skype, Bluejeans, Cisco Webex, Slack, and many others. These platforms all have their own strengths and drawbacks, but Zoom is not your only choice!
* If you use Zoom, there is nothing you can do to 100% stop it from collecting data on you. But you can still take steps to control what data you give it, such as: using zoom in browser rather than downloading it, turning off your camera whenever possible, or calling into Zoom meetings from a phone.
* If you use Zoom, there is nothing you can do to 100% protect your data. But you can take some steps to use Zoom more securely such as: not downloading the zoom app, setting your camera by default to “off” or taping over your webcam.
* Always treat Zoom as if there’s a chance anything you say on it might get out. If you need to have a private conversation or talk about something sensitive, do it across an encrypted communication method, like Signal.
* Both students and teachers should have a right to be informed about and make choices about the software that they need to interact with to do their job or get their education. Make sure your colleagues and fellow students are aware of the privacy and security risks of using Zoom. Let’s set up our classrooms in ways that make it easy for everyone involved to stay safe and take control of what data is collected on them.
* Universities are big clients, and Zoom does care what they think - if we all put pressure on our school administrations to put pressure on Zoom, we can get Zoom to change.
* Flip to the end for a Zoom privacy checklist to remind yourself of when you use Zoom!
Continue on for a more comprehensive explanation of the privacy risks of Zoom, info on what data Zoom does and doesn’t collect, and tutorials for using Zoom or other video call software in a secure way.
Why Should I Be Worried About Zoom
In a few weeks at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, pretty much every higher-ed institution in the US, and a large number of other schools, have adopted Zoom as their main tool for online classes. There are a lot of things to be excited about about Zoom — it’s pretty incredible to me how effectively many schools have managed to move entirely online on short notice, with the help of video-call software. But at the same time, almost every educational institution in the country all at once adopting this single software should worry us.
Always Be Wary Of A Monopoly
First off, it’s scary to me that over a three week period last April, Zoom pretty much gained a monopoly over education. Many schools are entirely dependent on Zoom. Many schools have only provided resources to teachers about how to teach classes in Zoom. If Zoom breaks or fails, or is revealed to have some sort of dangerous security bug, or if the CEO decides to jack up prices, we are all screwed.
Forming monopolies is how big tech companies get away with exploiting both their customers and their workers. When companies like Amazon or Facebook have no real competitors, they can get away with things they shouldn’t be able to — they can pay their workers starvation wages, exacerbate the spread of fake news, or mine and sell their customers' data to advertisers — because there is no competitor for customers to take their business to if they don’t like it. Large tech companies often strategically lower their prices to drive competitors out of business, then raise their prices once they’ve got a captive market - so we should be suspicious that Zoom has been lowering their prices and pushing their video call software on schools right now.
We don’t want to end up in a situation where Zoom is the only way that US teachers are trained to conduct online classes. We don’t want to end up in a situation where we have to be okay with whatever changes to terms and conditions Zoom makes because our teaching infrastructure is entirely dependent on it.
Alternative to Zoom do exist! We used them before the pandemic, and they have not disappeared. (In the Guide for teachers section, I go more in depth into other platform choices you have available to you) Though these platforms all have their own issues, diversifying the platforms we teach on still helps to fight the monopolistic power of Zoom - at least they won’t be able to get away with anything too shady while worrying about competitors.
Zoom Has A History of Censorship
You have no right to free speech on Zoom. Zoom is not a public space, it is owned by a private company, and this means that (in the United States), the first amendment does not apply to them. If Zoom at any time decides that they don’t like what you’re saying, they can (completely legally) shut down your meeting.
Historically, Zoom has used this power - and jumps quickly to the beck and call of world governments which want to restrict your freedom of speech. In June, Zoom suspended the accounts of two Chinese activists running an event about the Tiananmen Square massacre - even though the activists were currently living in the United States. This September, they shut down an event at San Francisco State University discussing palestinan liberation, after zionist groups reported the event, because one of the speakers was on the US governm