As more and more families, students, and educators turn to video conferencing to connect, security issues have emerged. Here's what parents need to know about keeping children safe and social.

By Maressa Brown
April 08, 2020
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While FaceTime chats and remote meetings have been commonplace for many parents for a while now, the global pandemic has made video conferencing an integral part of daily life for many families. Zoom's daily users ballooned to more than 200 million in March from a previous maximum total of 10 million, the video conferencing app's CEO Eric Yuan said in a letter on the Zoom blog last week. But with a higher reliance on this technology has come greater security concerns.

"With the recent shift to remote work and schooling due to COVID-19, video conferencing applications, like Zoom, have risen in popularity as a way to stay in touch with employees and keep students on track with their learning during the pandemic," explains Tyler Moffitt, a security analyst with Webroot, which provides internet security for consumers and businesses. Moffitt also acknowledges that Zoombombing, in which trolls and troublemakers crash a video conference in progress, has added an additional layer of worry for parents during this already difficult time.

Here's what you need to know about the concerning security risk and how to keep your kids safe while distance learning or staying in touch with friends online.

What Is Zoombombing?

Zoombombing refers to the sharing of inappropriate, hateful, or repulsive content with the other people on a Zoom call in an attempt to shock, threaten, or harass, explains Titania Jordan, chief parenting officer of parental-control app Bark. "It occurs when someone shares a unique Zoom link on social media or another public forum," says Jordan. "Zoombombers can also find meetings to join without stumbling upon a link online. Zoom meeting IDs are randomly generated, and new automated tools are allowing Zoombombers to find more than 100 meeting IDs an hour to disrupt."

Another pitfall: Zoom’s easy-to-use interface and fuss-free nature is precisely why it’s so susceptible to security problems, she notes. "Despite telling users that Zoom ensures an end-to-end encrypted connection, the company doesn’t really encrypt calls on its platform," explains Jordan.

Once a virtual hijacker has landed on a Zoom session to invade, they will then interrupt meetings by randomly joining the call with the intent to cause chaos or share explicit materials, says Jordan. "The culprits might share their screens to broadcast offensive photos or videos or use the on-screen pen tool to draw suggestive figures," she notes. "They can also flood the text chat feature with similarly offensive messages to other members of the call or target one person with provocative direct messages."

As the practice has become more prevalent, more headlines about Zoombombing have popped up nationwide. According to NPR, Zoombombers have invaded an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in New York, a Sunday school in Texas, online classes at the University of Southern California, and a city meeting in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Jordan points out that an FBI division in Boston has even issued an official warning about Zoombombing due to the recent surge in occurrences in the wake of COVID-19.

"Online learning and telecommuting have increased Zoom use exponentially, and with it has come individuals who wish to hijack video calls and intimidate people," observes Jordan.

Best Security Practices for Kids

Whether a child is using Zoom or another video conferencing software for school or socializing, there are certain steps you can take to preempt security risks.

Adjust your settings

To help prevent Zoombombing, you can adjust your Zoom settings to restrict file and screen sharing, and meeting hosts can also stop a Zoombomber’s video stream at any time, says Jordan.

Jordan summarizes Zoom's safety advice for its users, which can be translated to just about any video conferencing app:

  • When you share your meeting link on social media or other public forums, remember that makes your event extremely public. Anyone with the link can join your meeting.
  • Avoid using your Personal Meeting ID (PMI) to host public events. Your PMI is basically one continuous meeting. "And you don’t want randos crashing your personal virtual space after the party’s over," points out Jordan.
  • Learn about meeting IDs and how to generate a random meeting ID in this video tutorial.

Understand the policies and security features for any app

Diana Graber, author of Raising Humans in a Digital World and founder of Cybercivics.com and Cyberwise.org, notes that Zoom isn't the only video conferencing platform experiencing security issues. "Almost all of these tools have some concerns, but they all have pretty good settings you can use to protect yourself and your children," she says, encouraging parents and older kids to read over individual platforms' privacy policies and settings.

Additionally, remind kids that security risks occur across platforms. "A Zoombomb could happen in Tiktok, on Snapchat, Instagram," says Graber. "No matter which social media app your kid is going to use, talk to them about how to protect themselves."

Remind your child about their digital footprint

Jordan says this moment presents an opportunity for parents to talk about best online practices and good digital citizenship in general. "Even though video chatting may feel like 'real life,' it’s still an online activity," she notes. "Make sure your child knows that they shouldn’t be video chatting with strangers or people they don't know in person. Remind kids that meetings can be recorded, so they should avoid saying or doing anything on video that they wouldn’t feel comfortable having shared outside the group. And instruct them to tell you or another trusted adult if something happens online that makes them feel scared or uncomfortable."

How to Keep Kids Safe While Distance Learning

It's one thing if your weekly brainstorm session with colleagues is interrupted by a Zoombomber, but it's a quite another to fear that your child won't be able to keep up with their curriculum without risking a disturbing encounter.

Adina Kalish, director of media relations at Bark, says educators would do well to take the following precautions when hosting on the platform:

  • Lock the meeting once it is in session so no new participants can join.
  • Have all students "wait" in the Waiting Room and be admitted one by one instead of all at once.
  • Set up two-factor authentication with a meeting ID and user password.
  • Disable video from distracting participants and/or mute participants.
  • Turn off file transfer and screen sharing options.
  • Disable private chats among participants.
  • Refuse the ability to rejoin once a student has left the meeting.

While the onus might be on the video conference host, and therefore teachers, to take these precautions, there's no need for parents to feel like it's out of their hands entirely. "Have a conversation with the teacher," recommends Graber. "Especially if I had a younger child right now using Zoom, I would ask the teacher, 'Is this a secure meeting? Are you requiring a password?' Basic questions like these could protect your kid."

Jordan echoes this sentiment, advising parents who are worried about cybersecurity with your child’s online learning to "reach out to their school and ask questions about what safety measures they've taken." She also recommends educators check out additional resources on best Zoom practices by Protect Young Eyes.

You Have the Power to Protect Yourself & Your Child

Given the prevalence of Zoombombing, it has never been more important for parents to implement stronger cybersecurity practices, notes Moffitt. The good news is that's not necessarily a heavy lift.

"It's easy to protect ourselves and our children from Zoombombing," says Graber. "We have to remember that we have power here. We just have to spend a few minutes learning about these apps' security features."

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