Thoughts On Zoom

Note: this post has information that is likely to change over time, as various news outlets report on changes being made. I’ll try to update it as needed. Last updated: 04/04/20.

I’ve been using Zoom, the video-conferencing app, since 2017, to help make working remotely easier. I first learned about it when I enrolled in a “bootcamp” for web designers and developers, where we used it for weekly coaching and accountability calls.

I was delighted to discover that it was a fast, easy, cheap alternative to old, clunky and expensive programs like Webex and GoToMeeting. It was surprisingly easy to use, had a generous free account offering, worked on the web, and had native apps for macOS, and iPhones and iPads.

So for almost three years, I’ve used Zoom for nearly all of my work communication that requires more than an email or phone call. In fact, I almost never meet with prospects or clients in person at all (I have customers I have literally never met face to face), and Zoom has been a great tool to help facilitate “being there when you can’t be there” in person.

As the Coronavirus pandemic has unfolded over the past two months, it’s been strange to watch what was once just an obscure little tool in my digital tool kit become nearly ubiquitous with (seemingly) everyone now using it. Really, “Zoom” has become a verb. Just like we “Google something,” we “Zoom each other.”

Perhaps most strangely, my own kids are even using Zoom now: I listened in on my 7-year old son’s Zoom meeting with his school teacher and second-grade classmates yesterday. They smiled, waved, told jokes, quoted movies, and giggled the whole time. It was hilarious.

Zoom has truly been a great option for staying connected: it’s a powerful tool that enables us to have the next best thing when we can’t meet in person, be that in the context of work, school, church, friends, family, and more.

Having said all that, every type of technology, no matter how empowering, has flaws, weaknesses, and a certain level of understanding needed in order to use it properly. Users need to be aware of this.

Zoom, as a company, and as a product, has clearly had some growing pains as they try to work out the (apparently huge number of) bugs.

According to NPR, Zoom’s daily users were around 10 million in December, 2019. As of March, 2020, that number has ballooned to 200 million. You read that right: that’s an increase of 1,900%. Wow.

What’s interesting is that with their increased user base, they’ve come under exponentially increased scrutiny. It’s hard for me to see how Zoom had so many underlying problems that weren’t apparent with “only” 10 millions users, but are now critical with 200 million.

As I watch my friends and family struggle through understanding how to download, install, and use Zoom, I wanted to write out some of my thoughts. There are some big, scary headlines floating around in the news about Zoom. Some are worth paying attention to, and some aren’t that big a deal. Here are some basic thoughts on the topic.

Zoom’s major security concerns

For this, I’d say yes, Zoom has some unbelievable security issues. Not just in the product itself, but in the way the company has approached security overall. They seem to view it as an annoyance. It’s a barrier to be overcome, not an important step in protecting users’ security and trust. That’s very strange.

It looks like Zoom’s nefarious approach to security includes bypassing a lot of safety measures built into operating systems like macOS. They havent’ implemented basic industry-standard encryption that would seem obvious to any other company, and they’ve been cagey with their answers, or downright misleading.

This generally doesn’t make me freak out though. If you are meeting one-on-one with a friend and the two of you have a good conversation and are able to communicate about basic business concepts, I don’t think there are massive concerns for you. I suspect you should be about as concerned as you would be when talking on the phone with your friend while walking through the grocery store. Could people overhear you? Maybe. Is that reason enough to not talk on the phone in public? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on the subject matter.

How concerned am I about this? Personally, not very, because I don’t use Zoom for highly sensitive conversations. If, for example, your meeting is being recorded, or if you’re talking about highly sensitive topics, you’ve got more reason to be concerned. If you’re using Zoom for mental health counseling, perhaps you’ve got a problem and should stop using it.

If your organization is a school that’s using Zoom to connect with children, I ESPECIALLY advise you to be careful. (See more about zoombombing below).

I do think the increased scrutiny from the press is pushing the company to course-correct. I’m glad to see this: the uncomfortable spotlight has forced them to acknowledge a lot of problems and promise to fix them. This is good, and I think it will keep improving over time.

Make no mistake: these security issues are bad. They’re very, very bad. I’m not saying they’re good. But I am saying that I don’t think it’s a whole lot worse that what we’re used to now with Facebook, Instagram, Google, and other big tech companies that have had their own security and privacy issues, and we’ve become almost totally complacent about that.

The “Zoombombing” problem

As I mentioned, I’ve used Zoom on a small scale (conversations of two or three people) and on a huge scale (attending big presentations by large companies with 100 or more attendees) for more than 30 months. I have never, ever seen a user “take control” of a Zoom meeting and spew profanity or draw offensive images on a shared screen.

Honestly, it’s a little hard for me to understand how this can even happen. I guess it’s because a good portion of the 190 million new Zoom users apparently don’t know that the presenter has full control of the meeting, and can mute everyone else, prevent them from sharing their screen, and even kick them out of the meeting.

So is it Zoom’s fault that bad actors have unexpectedly disrupted meetings? I don’t know. …maybe? …kinda? But not really, because moderation tools are built into the platform. The fact that people aren’t using their administrative “powers” to moderate a discussion can’t be pinned directly on the company. Users need to accept some responsibility for understanding how a tool works before opening it up to 50, 100, or 250 people.

My recommendation for this: if you are hosting a meeting with Zoom, you need to spend some time getting used to how Zoom actually works. Get familiar with your abilities as a presenter to control the meeting. Do a few test runs, and asks friend or family to test it with you: see if someone you trust can interrupt your test meeting and test kicking them out and muting them.

Also, check out Zoom’s own instructions on how to host a meeting with confidence and security.

Lack of Encryption

The issue with encryption is a big one. I don’t understand why Zoom isn’t taking this seriously: it makes them look very bad. They need to fix this. Now.

Also, the fact that they’re storing recordings in the cloud without users knowing and maybe not even securely is a massive fail. Again, I’m personally not super concerned with this because, while I do record Zooms most of the time, I don’t store those recordings in the cloud. Mostly, this is because they limit the amount you can store, and they auto-delete after a certain amount of time. I’m not a fan of that, so I always store recordings locally.

You should too.

There are alternatives, but…

The problem right now with Zoom is that the alternatives are… pretty bad. That’s why everyone’s using it.

Google Hangouts was a pretty great solution in the past, but in typical Google fashion, they’ve confused the heck out of users by shutting it down, or renaming it, or both. Google Hangouts? Google Hangouts on Air? Google Meet? Google Hangouts Meet? Google Hangouts Chat?

What is the darn thing called, and why do they keep screwing with it? I’ll never understand Google’s product naming: they’re the worst in the industry when it comes to understanding what the product is called, what it costs, and whether you already have it or not.

They introduced Gmail, then Google Apps, then G Suite. They created Google Docs, then Google Drive, then Google Backup and Sync, then Google File Stream: all of them are all still confusingly intertwined and still, somehow, work together.

I used Google Hangouts a ton back in 2011, but that was almost a decade ago, and they haven’t seemed to update its core functionality since then. Even then, it was notoriously hard to use (finding out how to create a Hangout on the fly was very, very difficult).

You can still technically use it (though it’s confusingly called “Google Hangouts Meet”) but I’ve tried it a few times over the past few weeks: the video and audio quality is horrendous. Horrendous. Pitifully bad. This makes no sense, but it is what it is.

If you really want a list of alternatives, you could try looking into some of the following:

  • I’ve used this with success in the past. It’s pretty good.
  • Skype: One of the oldest and most solid platforms, but I stopped using when Microsoft bought it.
  • Google Duo: I’ve never used it but I think it only works on mobile and you need a Google account.
  • Apple Facetime: I use this all the time, but only for one-on-one video calls with fellow iPhone users.
  • Microsoft Teams: I won’t use it, even though I have an Office 365 subscription.
  • GoToMeeting: I’m not a big fan, and there’s no free tier.
  • Marco Polo: I use it sometimes, but only with family, and it only works on mobile devices, not computers.

I don’t know what works best for you. But for me, I’ll keep using Zoom until I somehow get zoombombed myself or the security flaws scare me away. It’s not perfect but it’s the best I’ve seen.

I trust that Zoom will do what they can in order to get this right. They have to.

For Pete’s sake, everyone is reliant on Zoom right now: people are using it to hold funerals, family reunions… even the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is using Zoom for virtual cabinet meetings with government ministers.

If you want to keep using Zoom, I do recommend you do your research, minimize the security risks by undertaking a few of the following:

  • Locking down your account settings so attendees need to use a password to join
  • (Or, alternately) only allowing authenticated users to join (i.e. making them sign in to Zoom first)
  • Not sharing your meeting URLs publicly
  • Not using cloud storage for recordings
  • Learning how to host a meeting and user moderation controls
  • Set your video and audio to “off” by default until you turn them on
  • Mute participants on entry

Several of these may, in fact, become default settings over time. As I write this on April 4th, I’ve already noticed an email in my inbox from Zoom saying they’re going to add more security updates on April 5th. We’ll see what those entail and how much it fixes things.

Best of luck to you as you discover the best way to navigate being stuck at home and trying to stay in touch with friends, family, and coworkers.

P.S. I’m thinking about offering some video courses on how to use Zoom. There are already plenty of resources on Zoom’s own website, but who knows… if you’re reading this and thinking: “Yes, Ron, that would be great! I’d like you to help me figure out Zoom,” just let me know with a comment below or email me.

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