To Zoom or Not to Zoom

By: Kate Lechtenberg Well, I’ve done it again. Just like I gave away my students’ privacy as an early adopter to Google Docs back when I was teaching high school English, I’ve been one of those early Zoomers who never stopped to think about privacy. You’d think I would have learned my lesson after my privacy come-to-Jesus moment when I wrote about Google’s privacy issues in 2017. But…nope. Here I am again, playing privacy catch up. In this post, I’ll share a little about my Zoom journey, Zoom’s recent rise and fall, and some video-conferencing options for all of us to consider to get us through this season (or more?) of social distancing.  

The Golden Days with Zoom

Zoom logo in blue letters
For the past couple years, I’ve been singing the praises of Zoom and breezily bragging about how I’ve been “living on Zoom” while teaching online classes and working on my dissertation from home. Zoom is easy, relatively glitch-free, and strangely comforting with it’s familiar Brady Bunch display. When I was forced to use other platforms like Adobe Connect (ALA’s old platform) or Google Hangouts (a favorite among librarians and teachers), I went along for the ride, but I always tried to slip in a push for Zoom. Before the COVID-19 quarantine and the great Zoom explosion of 2020, I used Zoom for synchronous instruction, research meetings, student conferences, meetings with my advisor, and even tech help sessions with my parents when they needed me to take over their screen and show them how to use their new computer. My parents marvelled at the wondrous technology, I saved gas and time by avoiding trips to my university, and I got to see my students at home with their pets, bongs, and postered dorm walls. What could go wrong?  

The Great Zoom Boom—and the Crash

When COVID-19 hit right before my daughter’s fourteenth birthday, I again felt proud to be an early Zoom adopter. We set up a Zoom birthday party, and I enjoyed a brief shining moment of feeling like I was ahead of a cultural moment—always a good feeling for a 40-year-old mother of a teenager and a pre-teen. The New York Times confirmed that “We Live in Zoom Now”, and I was happy that at least one part of my life would continue on as normal in the age of coronavirus and social distancing. But then, by the time I filed the March 27th Intellectual Freedom News, I read an early article about “Zoombombing,” a new form of trolling in which intruders joined Zoom meetings and shared racist, sexist, and otherwise oppressive or unwanted content. That was followed by articles in the April 3rd IF News about the New York attorney general’s investigation into Zoom and Zoom’s early promises to increase privacy after reports by Consumer Reports. By April 10th, we had a mini Zoom section in the IF News, including articles about schools banning Zoom, U.S. Senators being told to avoid Zoom, broader concerns about protecting student privacy during online learning, and tips for keeping your Zoom chats safe. The situation has continued to deteriorate, as hate-mongering Zoombombers increased their efforts and hacked Zoom accounts were sold on the dark web. Zoom hasn’t been shy about admitting their mistakes, the CEO’s public apology was covered widely, and they are making small steps like allowing paying customers to choose to avoid having their data routed through China. However, Zoom continues to face critiques for their lack of end-to-end encryption, and many experts encourage people to try other video conferencing tools with tighter security.  

Option A: Tighten Zoom Security Settings

computer network lines leading toward a blue padlock in the center
www.vpnsrus.com
So what’s a Zoomer to do?   If I was a privacy-blind early adopter, Brian Chen of the New York Times reported on concerns he’d had for the past year with Zoom’s breezy approach to privacy. Just as I loved Google Docs for its ease of use, tech experts started reminding me that easy often means dangerous. There’s a reason that there are multiple government investigations of Zoom’s privacy practices, and so I know that I need to take steps to respond. As I see it, there are two options: keep using Zoom but tighten security settings, or choose another platform. I’ve chosen the first option, and I followed several of the suggestions on the New York Times’s “How to Prevent Zoombombing in Five Easy Steps,” including using the waiting room feature, muting upon entry, and restricting attendees’ ability to share screen. This choice which makes sense for me because I’m concerned about privacy in an “I know I should be concerned about privacy” kind of way. My Zoom use doesn’t include highly sensitive discussions, and I usually meet with a relatively small number of familiar people. I feel fairly confident that my increased security will keep trolls out of my room.

Option B: Choose Privacy Over Familiarity and Ease of Use

However, for some Zoomers, increasing security might not be enough. If you’re more serious about privacy than I am (e.g., if you know why end-to-end encryption is important, with more nuance than my general sense that it’s a feature used by spies in the movies), you might want to check out these alternatives: It seems like everyone has a list of Zoom alternatives to share, and I think it’s a good bet to shop around, reading multiple sources’ evaluations of each tool’s pros and cons before you make your choice. Every tool will have their drawbacks, and since video conferencing for work and play is here to stay, it’s worth all our time to have a back-up or two. And if you are a privacy maven who has ditched Zoom, I’d love to hear from you in the comments about why my tightened security attempts aren’t enough!

Kate Lechtenberg
Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral candidate in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She was also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

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