Should we be using Zoom?

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We need to communicate with each other. But are all digital platforms equal?

By Kyle Ketchell, Assistant Editor

As the COVID-19 Pandemic forces people into their homes, we need to find a new way of communicating with each other. But is every online virtual platform equal?

As the COVID-19 Pandemic has confined the world to our homes to prevent the spread of this deadly disease, people are turning to digital methods of communication. PR students and teachers are using Canvas, Google Classroom, Google Meet, Zoom, and other platforms to hold their class. Each virtual platform has its merits. Zoom is free and easy to set up. Google Meet offers more control for teachers, but may not offer the same video quality as Zoom. The Canvas interface has a much steeper learning curve than Google Classroom, but Canvas offers more power for teachers to grade student work, and view whether or not students are actually active on Canvas.

While Canvas and Google Classroom offer students and teachers the opportunity to create, assign, and turn in their assignments online, there is still a critical piece missing: face to face interaction. Teachers have been utilizing Google Meet and Zoom, among other platforms, to meet with their students. Zoom has seen a massive increase in the use of their platform, 200 million daily users on April 1. This number is easily explainable, given the rising number of people who are unable to attend work (or school) in person. But as demand for a digital platform increases, the number of hackers and crackers who seek to break into a platform also increases.

What do you mean, Zoom isn’t secure?

People all over the world have reported an increase in the number of “Zoom Bombings.” While in a regularly planned Zoom teleconference, an uninvited cracker will join the meeting, and make a nuisance of themselves. Classrooms at PRHS have even seen Zoom bombings during their virtual meetings.

In addition to nuisance intrusions, school districts around the country are wary of Zoom for another reason. Without a contract with Zoom, districts can’t ensure that student data won’t be sold or shared improperly. District 38 has no contract with Zoom, so the company is able to take any information they want from a meeting, and use it, or sell it, and nothing can be done about it.

District 38 has no contract with Zoom, so student data can be used or sold, and nothing can be done about it.

But the security risks don’t stop there. In a report by The Intercept, Zoom is definitely “not suitable for secrets.” Researchers at the University of Toronto found that the virtual meeting platform has a host of cybersecurity issues, not the least of which is a weak encryption scheme. This means that a malicious hacker, or cracker, could tap into data from a Zoom conversation, and get nearly the full picture. While the images and audio may be fuzzy, a cracker could still understand all of a conversation. This may not seem like a big deal to Palmer Ridge High School, but it is a big deal for governments around the world who are using Zoom to host their meetings. From District 38’s Board of Education, to the British Parliament, governments have been turning to digital alternatives during this crazy virus.

Zoom has one more fatal security error: you need to download additional software to be able to run it. Hackers can use this software to take control of your device, and plant viruses, steal data, or cause permanent damage to your machine.

Why should we use Zoom, when there are other valid alternatives?

If a teacher is going to be instructing a lesson, why should they use Zoom to teach the lesson? There are far more effective alternatives, like YouTube. A teacher could record their lesson, upload it to YouTube, and tell all of their students to watch the video.

Some teachers have been using Zoom as a method to take attendance. But other teachers have found a much more crafty solution: Posting a question on Canvas. Each time attendance must be taken, students login to Canvas and find a question, usually posted under the “Discussion” tab. Students answer a simple question (“What is your favorite color?”, “Do you have any pets?”, etc) and are marked present for the day.

What about meeting with their students? Google Meet is a perfectly valid alternative to Zoom, offering in-browser support, which means that students don’t need to download software to meet with their teachers. Google Meet is a service provided by Google to Lewis-Palmer School District and has been the go-to choice for several teachers. Google Meet is free for anyone with an LPSD G-suite account, and even offers special control for teachers. Students are not able to create their own Google Meet sessions, but they can join a teacher’s session. Teachers can kick students out of meetings, or mute their audio or video. But as long as students act reasonably, they shouldn’t need to worry about this.

But what if I need to use Zoom?

Not to worry! Most attackers won’t be after high school Zoom meetings. They’re probably more interested in large corporations, or governments. But just in case, you should probably take a few steps to make sure that your Zoom meeting won’t be interrupted by someone looking to cause trouble.

  • Do not post your link publicly. Make it available in Canvas or Google Classroom.
  • Make sure that people need a password to join the meeting.
  • Consider using the Waiting Room to screen new arrivals.
  • Turn off Private Chat. This will make group chats available, but students will not be able to chat with each other privately.
  • Set your Screen Sharing settings carefully. If you are the only one who should be presenting, then you should be the only one who can screen share.
  • Use the “Remove uninvited participants” feature, and/or the “put participants on hold” feature.
  • Don’t use Zoom for direct teaching. YouTube is a much more useful option for direct teaching.

While Zoom no longer offers the ability for a meeting host to go back and make sure that everyone was paying attention, Zoom can still see everything that you do and say. So like the internet, don’t put anything out there that you wouldn’t want to show up later on.

Before you go hating on Zoom too much…

Zoom HQ is aware of the security flaws in their system. Zoom has publicly promised to fix as many of their security flaws in the next 90 days. Zoom has also committed to producing no User Interface updates until they have fixed their security issues.