Let’s play a game and reflect on the past 12 months of pandemic behavior. Here’s a quick quiz. In the past 12 months:
1) Did you listen to the scientists?
2) Were your actions predicated on communal thinking rather than focused on convenience for yourself?
Scoring: Did you answer “yes” to both questions? Then congratulations! You’ve never used the teleconferencing software “Zoom.”
Oh. Wait. You thought I was taking about wearing masks?
The truth is that in addition to a SARS virus attacking our bodies for the past 12 months, our private lives have been under attack as well.
Did you just shrug and say “Nothing is private anymore”? That would be the analogous response to my neighbor, a year ago, who told me, “I can’t stay up worrying about Covid; eventually we are all going to get it.”
In fact, our privacy is gone only if we don’t do anything at all. Europe, for example, already has stricter laws about tech companies peeking into private lives than the US does.
We’ll get back to the issue of privacy but, for now, let’s examine the quiz questions, starting with the first. At the earliest stage in the pandemic last year, many organizations, including the FBI and the US Senate, banned the use of Zoom for security reasons. Famously, the most scientific high-tech organization in the government, NASA, banned its employees from initiating Zoom teleconferences and continues to do so.
So, are you going to listen to the rocket scientists – or ignore them?
A year ago, most of the public concerns about Zoom centered on security. Security is the ability for you to keep outsiders from looking at your teleconference. You may remember the phenomenon of Zoombombing where an undesirable interloper would crash a Zoom meeting. Worse still, Zoom was making false claims about the encryption of their software. Yep. The company was lying about the security of its teleconferencing software since at least 2016. Don’t take my word; that’s the Federal Trade Commission’s claim. And it wasn’t until mid-October 2020 before the company implemented some encryption fixes.
That wasn’t the only problematic issue with Zoom. The FTC complaint also points out that the installed Zoom code deliberately bypassed software protections on Macs and it remained on your computer after you uninstalled it.
Imagine if a company lied about the effectiveness of a vaccine and pushed for you to take it, even while knowing it was ineffective. Would you ever again take that vaccination (or any other product) from that company or would you instead look for other options?
It wasn’t until February 2021 that Zoom was able to settle with the government over its deceptive security practices.
But that’s still not the end of it. For, if security is the relationship between you and the rest of the Internet, privacy is the relationship between you and the company providing the software.
You probably know to never click on unfamiliar links in emails or on sketchy websites so as to avoid malicious software, known as malware, from surreptitiously installing on your computer. However, today’s social media companies try to insist on your installing apps onto your digital devices. Viewed broadly, it is not unreasonable to consider these apps as malware for they contain monitoring software for the company’s benefit rather than yours. Facebook, for example, can be used directly from its website – but the company constantly pushes you to load the Facebook app. Makes you wonder. Ever have a conversation with a friend that triggered a targeted ad related to the conversation popping up in your Facebook feed? Viewing the Facebook website from a browser doesn’t affect the functioning of your smart phone. The same cannot be said when you install software written by Facebook onto the phone. Another example: Instagram, the photo social media website owned by Facebook, requires you to install its app if you want to fully participate on the site. Oh, the pressure that Silicon Valley applies on us to install their “free” software.
Similarly, Zoom requires a software installation if you want to have full access to its service. It also needs email addresses and all kinds of informational goodies. How many overenthusiastic and naïve meeting hosts needlessly insist on people displaying their full legal name when they sign into a meeting? And who knows what that installed software ends up doing? Does it monitor the visual background behind your face to discern aspects of your life? Are the filters building a better and better map of your face so Zoom can sell your visage to the government for facial recognition on public cameras? Is it learning your voice to be able to filter out background noise in your home – or to better identify it when some entity wants to intercept wireless calls? Maybe all this data is used to create a deepfake version of yourself which says things that you never did.
The machine learning behind identification programs just needs lots and lots of data to learn. What better data stream than millions of people sitting in front of cameras and mics for hours?
We already know Silicon Valley companies were (and probably still are) surveillance partners with the government under the PRISM program that broadly – and, according to the courts, illegally – monitored US citizen activity. We already know that both the FBI and ICE use State Driver’s License Databases as sources for facial recognition software. The Chinese have announced they have tech which can do facial recognition, with 95% accuracy, of people wearing masks.
Zoom isn’t the only suspect in corporate mass data collection, of course. But when a company name becomes a verb, be very, very afraid. If you don’t understand what I mean, you should Google it.
But I’m a techie, not a Luddite and I’ve participated in many telecons since the pandemic started without using Zoom at all. Just as it is possible to avoid the dossier that Google builds on you based on your searches – try DuckDuckGo-ing instead – one can still teleconference without being beholden to a corporate tech giant. To avoid Zoom while still enjoying free service, use Jitsi instead which, in the tech biz, is known as open-source software. In other words, unlike Zoom and other “free” commercial teleconferencing services, you can take Jitsi’s raw video teleconferencing code from its website, you can inspect it, you can even modify it and set it up on your own computer thus ensuring no third-party company will be involved in accessing your meeting feed.
Or…you can just use it. Without having to install anything on your computer.
Which is what I do. On my laptop or tablet, I go to meet.jit.si, make up a room name, for example:
type it into the Jitsi box, and…
…that’s it. I then take the website address of the room – it will look something like:
– and cut and paste this address into an email to my friends, they click on the link in the email, and, just like that, we are in a meeting. Yes, literally that simple. All the key pieces of software to run a video teleconference are already available on your laptop or tablet’s browser. That’s why you don’t need – and never needed – to install some company’s software to teleconference.
In fact, Jitsi never needs anything more from you to run properly. No email address, no name, no nothing. (You have options for Jitsi to send the email invitation to a room but why bother? You can do this yourself and protect everyone’s privacy.) Best of all, Jitsi operates pretty much like all teleconferencing software. There is nothing unique or special about the teleconferencing controls with which you are familiar from other software. Waiting lobbies? Screen-sharing? It’s all there. You can even choose to stream the output to YouTube for public consumption in real-time.
And it really is private. We know this because you don’t have to use the Jitsi servers; you can use your own computers as servers. A second clue about privacy, however, is in the corporate privacy statements. Compare, for example, the length and complexity of the Zoom privacy statement with that of Jitsi. When there is nothing to hide, privacy statements are rather simple.
Which now brings us to Question 2 in our quiz. Will your organization be considerate of all its meeting participants and opt out of Zoom preventing unnecessary privacy violations? Or will it continue with Zoom for the sake of a host’s familiarity with a software package that a year ago most of the public didn’t even know existed? Many people understand that masks protect others. Will these same folks similarly understand that we can only protect each other’s privacy collectively? Or will these people be “shocked” when they watch another documentary about The Social Dilemma in a similar manner that some of those who denied the Covid virus found themselves intubating with ventilators in a hospital?
But perhaps you believe you – and others – have “nothing to hide.” To that point, it seems fitting to end this column with two quotes from Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who exposed the government’s PRISM surveillance program:
“Arguing that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like arguing you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. It’s not really about having something to hide, it’s about having something to lose.”
“If we don’t have privacy, what we’re losing is the ability to make mistakes. We’re losing the ability to be ourselves. Privacy is the fountainhead of all other rights. Freedom of speech doesn’t have a lot of meaning if you can’t have a quiet space… to decide what it is that you actually wanna say.”
Disclosure: I have no relationship, financial or otherwise, with either Zoom Video Communications, Inc. or 8×8, Inc. (which distributes the Jitsi software).
Originally published May14, 2021 in Script Magazine.