Commentary

Must We Really Call the Feds on Impish Zoom ‘Hackers’?

By Rob Shimshock | April 2, 2020 | 12:46pm EDT
A woman types on the keyboard in an ASMR video. (Photo credit: YouTube/ALB in whisperland ASMR)
A woman types on the keyboard in an ASMR video. (Photo credit: YouTube/ALB in whisperland ASMR)

In most cases, no.

But that’s not what the perennially scandal-starved media might have you believe. 

With quarantine in full effect for much of the nation, meetups spanning from college classes to Alcoholics Anonymous have migrated into the digital sphere, hosting sessions on audiovisual platform Zoom. But these calls are receiving some unexpected participants, with churlish netizens disrupting meetings en masse, hurling anything from acerbic japes to vile invective and using the app’s screen-share tool to portray content ranging from Guitar Hero to crude Microsoft Paint sketches of certain regions of the anatomy.

The New York Post starts a piece entitled “FBI warns of hackers hijacking online Zoom meetings, classes” by claiming that “even working from home isn’t safe!” 

That’s right; online trolling is on the same tier as a murderous virus. That ludicrous conflation aside, there are a few other “problematic” parts to this picture.

One is the liberal use, by the Post and others, of the term “hijack,” as though spewing hogwash in video chats resembles seizing control of and crashing a plane. But while hysterical hyperbole should be mocked, blatant deception must be sharply condemned — pundits and publications calling these campaigns “hacks” are engaging in outright mendacity. 

Over the past half-day, I’ve sat in on a few of these trolling sessions — in a purely journalistic capacity! Users are finding Zoom room numbers and passwords through publicly accessible venues like Twitter. Such information is often posted pseudonymously and accompanied by messages such as “raid my math class tomorrow,” suggesting that mischievous students and members of other groups are hoping some anonymous prankster will raise hell on their behalf during a tedious lecture or briefing. 

In short, joining these calls unsolicited is just as much a “hack” as taking your dog to a public park is an “invasion.” (Though “hack” and “hijack” can be correctly applied to Zoom bugs that reportedly allow for the stealing of Windows users’ passwords and the commandeering of Mac users’ microphones and webcams -- the FBI has recommended reporting these hacks).

Instead of using it as another excuse to appeal to Big Daddy Government, professors, community leaders, and the like should remedy these unwanted incursions with a good ol’ dose of personal responsibility.

Zoom features a plethora of tools that can re-empower meeting hosts and stymy the efforts of bad faith actors.

The app features a “lobby” function which, when activated, allows the call host to approve or decline prospective participants to a given room before these entrants are able to view, listen, speak, or share their screens. Shrewd use of this utility would involve denying session access to users whose names call hosts do not recognize -- this is the most surefire way to cull trolling.

Less preventive and more reactive measures include adjusting screen share settings so that only hosts can broadcast to meeting attendees, walling off a meeting to incoming callers if a “raid” is under way, and appointing a “moderator” to boot infiltrators.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Americans have had no choice but to forfeit some of their agency to the government in matters as diverse as personal finance and physical movement. They should welcome this opportunity to exercise autonomy and assert some measure of control in such chaotic times.

Rob Shimshock is the Commentary Editor at CNSNews.com. He has covered education, culture, media, technology, and politics for a variety of national outlets, hosted the Campus Unmasked YouTube show, and was named to The Washington Examiner's "30 Under 30" list. Follow him on Twitter @ShimshockAndAwe.

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