Zoom video conferencing – the privacy nightmare


Zoom video calling – a privacy mine field

Zoom video calling – the privacy nightmare

Why the concern around Zoom’s nightmarish privacy concerns? 

COVID19’s enforced mass working from home has surged the demand for video calling, virtual meetings and video conference calling.

The vast majority of people have settled on one service: Zoom.

Even governments around the world such as the UK’s meetings of Cobra, the cabinet members tasked with tackling the Coronavirus COVID19 crisis, are using the app to host their meetings remotely. In the first two months of 2020, Zoom added more users than the entirety of 2019.

Privacy experts have however been sounding alarming warnings concerning Zoom’s privacy settings.

Zoom’s privacy policy tries to say it, sort of,  doesn’t sell your data – “which I’m thrilled about,” says Daragh O Brien, a data protection consultant with Castlebridge, a company based in the Republic of Ireland. “But there’s still an incredible amount of secondary processing you leave yourself open to in the app – and that’s before we even get to the tracker and cookie payload that comes with the web client.”

Most concerning however, according to Muhafiz Al-Said, a cyber security specialist at Al-Said Group, based in Oman – is the recording and storage of: “Video footage from your calls, transcripts of the audio from your calls and copies of all documentation sent via the app”. They call this “customer content” and it is extremely alarming. 

Zoom states it uses “certain standard advertising tools” according to its privacy policy “which require personal data” such as Google Ads and Google Analytics.

They also cover what’s called “customer content”, which includes the names of every user on a call, the video footage generated, the contents of any documents shared and transcripts of what was said on the calls.

Widespread criticism has stung Zoom: on 29 March 2020, it clarified its privacy policy in a blog post, addressing some of the issues data protection experts had with it and stating clearly “No data regarding user activity on the Zoom platform – including video, audio, and chat content – is ever provided to third parties for advertising purposes”.

However they did not clarify how long the data is stored for, who it is shared with or sold to and for what purposes.

Zoom wants you to know that it cares about privacy.

Three separate company spokespeople responded to Press requests for comment to say the company takes users’ privacy “extremely seriously”.

“Zoom only collects data from individuals using the Zoom platform as needed to provide the service and ensure it is delivered as effectively as possible,” a spokesperson said, adding that it has “layered safeguards in place to protect our users’ privacy, which includes preventing anyone, including Zoom employees, from directly accessing any data that users share during meetings, including – but not limited to – the video, audio and chat content of those meetings. Importantly, Zoom does not mine user data or sell user data of any kind to anyone.”

The defaults for Zoom aren’t just biased in favour of overly broad data collection for the app itself, but also for the host of any call. A call host can record a shockingly detailed hall of information by default, including your video, any audio or text, and can even track whether you’re paying attention by looking at the webcam (eye movement tracking). This could be considered work place monitoring and raise legal questions in many countries, regions and states.

That worries many. “One danger of suddenly taking up new tech solutions in response to a crisis, is that the planning and preparation steps get bypassed, acceptable use is assumed, but not formalised or communicated, and risk assessments fall by the wayside,” explains Rowenna Fielding, a privacy and data protection expert at Protecture. “In a healthy corporate culture, bosses lead and empower their employees rather than treating them like Victorian mill-workers. Just because snooping settings are there doesn’t mean they should be used.”

Key features which enable such levels of snooping can be limited or turned off by the host, but not those that allow Zoom itself to collect such data.

One privacy and security expert who wished to remain anonymous also recommends users use a unique email alias only for Zoom, and make sure to clear all your cookies and temporary files and app data after each call to limit the tracking the service can do through your browser. She also recommends not discussing any confidential, classified or protected information on the calls or messages and not to send any sensitive documents. She stresses however that many other similar apps have similar practises and thorough due diligence and a robust company policy of usage should not be neglected even in times of crisis.

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About the Author

Francesca Webb
Official account of Francesca Webb. Canadian-Italian globetrotter, journalist and PR manager.