Understanding the sociological aspects of—and preventing—racist & misogynistic Zoom bombings

Certain precautions must be taken to create a safe learning environment, university professors say

The Journal spoke with a student and professors about the driving factors behind virtual attacks.
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Earlier this year, a virtual event hosted by the School of Religion was subject to an attack.

Guest lectured by Professor Kathryn Lofton of Yale University, the event was called “The Present Life of Blasphemy: Kanye West in American Popular Culture.”

The attack came after the presentation concluded when students were given the chance to ask questions.

“I think people are just bored,” Carly Baldachin, ArtSci ’22, said in an interview with The Journal. She was one of the students affected by the incident.

“When I first heard that this happened, again, my mind went directly thinking that this was a student,” she said. “I was really scared because I'm very proudly Jewish and people know that—I don't hide it.”

Baldachin said she spoke to the department’s professors to express her frustration.

“These are messages targeted towards us,” Baldachin said.  

“But I was able, after speaking to our professors, to take a step back and realize this happens more often than we like to know—after all, this isn’t only happening at Queen’s.”

The recent Zoom attacks weren’t only targeted at Jewish folks—they were also motivated by anti-LGBTQ and racist sentiment.

Considering its other messages, Baldachin said she was able to move past it and take a step back.

“This is annoying, this sucks, but I am okay.”

While the incident could be played off as a prank, it was part of a string of similar attacks at Canadian universities this year.

An expression of privilege

Norma Möllers, assistant professor of sociology specializing in intersections of science, technology, and politics, said individuals who choose to bomb Zoom lectures are privileged enough to not expect negative consequences.

“The ability to not think about the security and how other students are affected by it are all signs of privilege.”

Möllers also brought up instances where specific classes discussing sensitive issues are targeted by Zoom bombings.

“I’m surprised this is still happening,” David Murakami Wood, former Canada Research Chair in Surveillance studies and associate professor at Queen’s, said in an interview with The Journal.

Wood said in the beginning of the pandemic, multiple articles and guides on securing Zoom meetings circulated online, which he hoped would teach the general population how to hold a secure video call.

"I mean if you go back to even April, May last year, you can see people already started to be concerned about this happening."

The frequent occurrence of Zoom bombings can’t simply be deemed as another prank, he said.

“I think one thing you have to bear in mind is that it’s not just about the pandemic allowing this opportunity for certain people do this kind of thing, there are specific triggers,” Wood said. 

Last summer, protests following the death of George Floyd as well as racist sentiment in the US elections instigated and intensified much of the racist politics present in many Zoom bombings, he noted.

There are many reasons one might want to disrupt other people’s meetings, Wood added, but he called out bigotry as a significant one.

“I’m not going to say they have legitimate reasons, but this series of things seem to be based on two fundamental principles: racism and misogyny.”

In the context of working and learning remotely, Wood questioned why, after similar events last year, Zoom bombings aren’t being taken more seriously.

Considering how simply Zoom meetings can be set up and entered, people instigating these incidents are often not skilled individuals who have hacking backgrounds, he said.

Securing Zoom

To prevent further Zoom bombings happening in the future, the onus to increase Zoom security and privacy settings is likely to fall on the company, not solely its users. 

In a statement by Patti McDougall, vice-provost (teaching, learning, and student experience) at the University of Saskatchewan, two other Zoom hacking incidents occurred in recent weeks during lectures. 

“Unfortunately, we are not aware of any means that would permit us to identify the digital traces of those who entered these gatherings and perpetrated disruption and harm. The fact that we do not hold a license for Zoom means that we don’t have any direct connection to the vendor beyond being able to report an incident on-line as any other individual user might do.”

Since Zoom’s rise from the start of the pandemic, it’s dealt with various concerns regarding its security levels.

Last March, Zoom was criticized for its privacy practices, in which it claimed its encryptions were end-to-end, one of the most private forms of internet communication that protects conversations from all outside parties.

Instead, the encryption is based on a different definition where the company has access to unencrypted video and audio from meetings. This means the videoconferencing service can access conversations on its platform.

Experts have said the purpose of their loose encryption gives Zoom access to messages and files shared during meetings for ad targeting.

On March 30, 2020, Zoom updated its privacy policies. With little change, its blog post emphasized that Zoom wasn’t changing its practices but rather, the company was providing more clarity and details.

“We want to emphasize that Zoom does not sell our users’ data […] has never sold user data in the past and has no intention of selling users’ data going forward,” the post reads.

As user-friendly, reliable, and accessible as the software has been throughout COVID-19, Wood said increased precautions are still needed to address the prevalence of Zoom bombings. 

“One of the problems is that people still aren’t following the guides for security,” Wood said.

"We should all be taking those precautions," he said. "I think there is a lot of responsibility, some of which institutions and some individuals within institutions are still not taking seriously."

Wood added that instructors should be more aware of identifying people attending through their names and email addresses in order to ensure that no one is using an anonymous handle.

“Older academics are responsible for this. We organize these meetings; we should have very least read the guide as to how to protect meetings and take the appropriate precautions.”

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