Virtual Meetings - Risky Business?


I remember vividly the first time I saw Skype being used: I was in my best friend’s house when her parents video-called her aunt. I was amazed and, frankly, shocked that one could literally interact with someone while being so far away. I would never forget my disbelief — it was one of the times technology impressed me the most.

With the COVID-19 pandemic leading to lockdowns around the world, it is now impossible to imagine how we could cope without such online communication technologies. Many businesses, schools, and religious celebrations have moved completely online, almost (or in some cases, literally) overnight.

The drastic rise of demand has led to Zoom, a video-conferencing software, seeing its number of daily users escalate from 10 million to 200 million since the outbreak. While there exist other alternatives on the market, for example Microsoft Teams or Skype which offer similar functions, Zoom has the competitive advantage of being free and especially easy to use.

It is popular, that is for certain. The question remains: Is it safe? Many critics remain skeptical. An obvious security flaw is the risk of hackers being able to gain access to a meeting, a phenomena called Zoombombing. Such incidents have caused scandals in the United States, such as when a man joined a Zoom school lesson and exposed himself to students. In another case, a virtual meeting was interrupted by visitors who shouted racial slurs. Few people would feel comfortable during a video conference knowing that there is a risk of such uninvited guests showing up. Recognising the security threat, on the 5th of April, New York banned the use of Zoom in schools and directed teachers to other platforms, such as Microsoft Teams or Google for Education, instead.

Zoom has created controversy in the UK as well. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson used Zoom to hold a cabinet meeting and posted a screenshot of it to Twitter, many pointed out the risks of making the group’s meeting ID visible to the public. Experts note it could make the call easier to hack. Luckily, as of now the incident has had no such consequences, but the considerations still remain.

Zoom has tried to reassure us that these security risks could be overcome as the software develops rapidly. Having admitted to mishandling certain issues, the CEO of Zoom Eric Yuan announced that the company will freeze the development of new features and focus its attention on security instead. The task might be difficult since changing the default setting and improving user privacy could negatively affect the ease of use. It is clear that challenges remain, but after all it is often said that “necessity is the mother of invention”. The pandemic has put a pressure on online communications apps, but perhaps the additional attention and scrutiny is exactly the stimulus that we needed to improve such technology.

On the other hand, some issues exist not because of the technology itself, but how it is used. In many cases, improving security could be a matter of following the basic rules: look left and right before crossing the road, lock your Zoom meetings with a password — and the like. A McKinsey report, “A blueprint for remote working: Lessons from China,” highlighted the importance of establishing a confidentiality culture at work, and limiting the spread of information to those who need to know. Hence, employees should be trained to use the tools offered by technology in a way that minimises risks, and use established protocols.

Yet even if security problems diminish in importance, it is still unclear to what extent the pandemic will revolutionise the world of work. In many cases, it is down to the preferences — a question of not whether we could, but whether we would want to. Video conferences have some undeniable advantages, such as eliminating the dreaded commute and, in that way, increasing comfort and flexibility at work. However, some managers still have a preference for traditional meetings, where interpersonal relationships can be easier established.

Moving our entire lives online was not a choice, but that does not mean that we cannot learn anything beneficial from it. When the pandemic is finally over, workplaces will have to decide how they want to function in the “new normal”. In order to do that freely, technological security risks must be minimised, although like with everything on the internet, they might never be completely eliminated.

Image: Flickr.com

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