Stay safe online – web conferencing (and the trouble with Zoom)


Working from home has been on the rise for a number of years. Even before the Coronavirus pandemic, the number of people working from home was estimated to be somewhere between 4.5 and 8 million. Since we were all told to stay at home, this figure has exploded, and one tool that helped people in business work remotely is now being used by almost everyone to keep in touch with family and friends – web conferencing.

However, using web conferencing can seem confusing and arcane at first, not to mention worries over security and privacy. In this article, Dave gives you the lowdown on using web conferencing to help you stay in touch whilst in isolation.

What is Web Conferencing?

About 15 years ago, I was a network manager working in schools. At the time, computing and the internet seemed to offer unlimited possibilities for new ways of teaching and learning, and one of the most exciting of these was video conferencing. A company called Polycom had perfected the hardware and software required to do real-time ‘video calls’ in high definition, although Skype had been around since the early 2000s, albeit offering lower quality video. There were a couple of problems for the average user:  first, internet speeds were still pretty dire, with most home users limited to 1 or 2 megabits per second (Mbps). Only those who could afford to splash out on a dedicated link with speeds of around 10Mbps were able to take full advantage of the technology; second, the service itself could prove costly, as most people’s internet capacity had a data limit, so even if you had a fast enough connection you could soon rack up the cost. You also needed a separate webcam and microphone, unless you had a few thousand pounds to spare on a Polycom box for dedicated videoconferencing.

These days, 10Mbps would be considered slow, and many users will enjoy somewhere between 20 and 100Mbps as standard. Every laptop you can buy now has a webcam built in, and of course, phones have super high definition cameras as standard. So web conferencing is now the norm, with many of us having used Facetime, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger to make a video call. While these are great for one-to-one calls, they’re not brilliant for having online meetings between more than 2 people in disparate locations.

Web conferencing uses a ‘cloud’ model to deliver the service, meaning you don’t need any dedicated kit, and the costs are so low that you can do it for free, with certain limitations. The idea is that a company allows you to connect to their servers (the cloud), and they then connect you to other users signed up to their service, taking all of the responsibility for the technical stuff. It’s a model that works well if you don’t need any bells and whistles, and don’t mind handing over control to an internet company. However, as with everything, there are advantages and disadvantages. These are outlined in general below:

Advantages

  • Reduced travel costs – Web conferencing reduces the need for travel. Personal or face-to-face meetings can be conducted through the web, with participants dialling in from locations around the world.
  • Flexibility – Web conferences allow for impromptu meetings that would otherwise be impossible to hold on short notice. It also allows meetings to be held among people in completely different time zones.
  • Easy sharing of desktop and applications. Sometimes it’s easier to show someone rather than tell them, and a quick web meeting where you can show them your latest designs rather than relying on ‘e-mail tennis’ can be a godsend!

Disadvantages

  • Not all software is free, and even the free software has limitations (they want you to pay to unlock the features, of course!)
  • Web conferencing quality can vary depending on the speed of the respective parties’ internet connections.
  • Slow internet, coupled with an old computer, a house full of kids and a barking dog means the experience might not be the best for business meetings!
  • Informality – some people won’t make as much of an effort if they are not meeting you face-to-face (are they wearing trousers?).
  • Hacking – some services have been found to be distinctly lacking in their approach to security (see below).
  • Privacy – the people running the free services often want to monetise them in some way. That means selling stuff to you. Or selling your data to others. Or both. (See below).

The Trouble with Zoom

Zoom has become a bit of an internet phenomenon recently. I think I heard about it about 3 weeks ago, and I’ve been using web conferencing software for years! However, my enthusiasm has been dampened somewhat by recent concerns about Zoom. Whilst it’s relatively easy to use, it would seem there are some problems with security and privacy which have certainly given me pause for thought.

Firstly, it’s not clear what data Zoom shares with Government bodies. Whilst this is not such a concern for us here in the UK, the advocacy group Access Now has published an open letter to Zoom asking them to release a transparency report.

What’s more concerning to me are security flaws that could let hackers hijack your webcam or eavesdrop on your calls. That’s not all, according to this article on Tom’s Guide. Whilst some of the worst flaws have been fixed, there’s still a concern. Of those that are outstanding, these ones worry me:

Phony end-to-end encryption – in the security world, end-to-end encryption means that no-one apart from you and the people you’re meeting should be able to get inside the data as it travels around the internet. In effect, the data is ‘scrambled’ so it just looks like random noise, and the application at each end is the only place it can be unscrambled. It has emerged that Zoom actually controls the ‘keys’ to the scrambled data on their servers, meaning that in effect they could, if they wanted to, eavesdrop your meeting. The question is, do you trust them not to, especially if say, the FBI, asked them to?

Solution: Don’t discuss your secret plans on Zoom.

Leaks of email addresses and profile photos – Several Dutch Zoom users who use ISP-provided email addresses suddenly found that they were in the same “company” with dozens of strangers — and could see their email addresses, user names and user photos. Not ideal.

Solution: Don’t share sensitive documents through Zoom (especially ‘candid’ photos. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink)

Sharing of personal data with advertisers – apparently Zoom have the right to use Zoom users’ personal data and to share it with third-party marketers. To me, this is pretty standard for a global internet corporation, and I don’t trust any of them with my personal data. I fully expect them to sell my data on for a profit and have resigned myself to that fact. There’s a Wired article here that outlines some of the things you can do to protect your privacy whilst using Zoom. but as Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems said: “You have zero privacy, get over it!”

Solution: Not much you can do about it, apart from not using Zoom. Or the internet. Or going anywhere there’s CCTV. Which is, well, anywhere.

If you’re still keen to use Zoom (and to be honest, as long as you follow these tips to avoid being ‘bombed’ it’s as safe as any web-based software that’s FREE), sign up for an account here. You will need to download and install a small application to run the meetings. You get unlimited time for one-to-one meetings. For 3 or more people, you’re limited to 40 minutes but, hey, who wants to be in a meeting longer than that?

Alternatives to Zoom

If you’re now not keen on using Zoom, here are some alternatives. I haven’t tested all of them, but give my informed opinion on each one.

EZTalks

This looks just like Zoom to me. It even has the same free model (i.e. 40 minutes limit for more than 2 people). They do seem to be stricter with data than Zoom, and they say they use AES 256-bit encryption, which is currently nigh-on impregnable. It’s not clear if this is end-to-end, but if it is I’d say it’s a pretty good alternative to Zoom.

Skype

Skype has been around for decades, so is well established and widely trusted. It’s been my go-to web conferencing for a long time. You don’t need to sign up to anything, or download anything. Skype also uses AES 256-bit encryption, and if everyone’s using the Skype app (installed or web based) it’s end-to-end. It’s pretty much the best on the market in my opinion. It’s compatible with Mac, too.

Jitsi

Jitsi Meet, has literally only just come on my radar. I found it when I was looking at how activists (such as Extinction Rebellion) communicate securely. It’s open source, meaning it’s developed and supported by a community of techies like me, not some faceless corporation. Open source usually also means that bugs are fixed pretty quickly. They have a detailed page on privacy and security, but I did note that it’s only end-to-end encryption for one-to-one meetings. Multi-point meetings are decrypted as they pass through the Jitsi servers. So you just have to trust them on that…

AnyMeeting

I’ll be honest, this seems too good to be true to me. But anyway, Intermedia are offering their AnyMeeting Pro solution for FREE for the whole of 2020! Up to 30 participants, full HD, end-to-end encryption, meeting recording, the works. It’s as fully featured as it can be. The only catch as far as I can see is that you have to have a business name. I’m sure you could make something up. If anyone sees another catch, please let me know in the comments below. I am not affiliated with Intermedia in any way…

So there you have it. By all means use Zoom as long as you’re careful. But if you don’t fancy it, there are alternatives that will keep you connected for the duration of this crisis.

Stay safe, stay at home.

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