Zoom: The Latest Technology Company to Have a Privacy Problem

31 Mar 2020

 

I will be the first to admit that I waxed lyrically about Zoom when I first found it. I even shot a podcast, as well as kept in touch with my best friends on the video conferencing platform.

 

Indeed, since the new year, Zoom’s share price has more than doubled. With politicians and business leaders worldwide tweeting about their new communicative tool of choice, many were wondering how Skype had blown such a dominant market position so quickly.

 

But instead, many should have been wondering about Zoom’s approach to using our data. Anyone who cares about civil liberties should be approaching the platform of the month with caution.

 

Recently, Zoom was caught installing web servers on users’ machines that allowed any website to forcibly join in on a Zoom call, without the consent of the host caller.

 

Furthermore, Zoom’s privacy policy states that it collects not just personal data, but videos, transcripts that can be automatically generated, documents shared on screen, as well as the names of everyone on a call.

 

Instant messages and videos can be utilised to develop facial recognition algorithms and target ad campaigns. In a similar manner to Facebook, whose artificial intelligence products can generate 6 million "prediction data points" a second, Zoom could be yet another organisation to adopt the practices of surveillance capitalism.

 

Hosts are handed lots of power, too. The app, according to Consumer Reports, offers hosts “rights that might not be immediately apparent to other participants-or, in some cases, to the hosts themselves”.

 

What does this mean, you may ask?

 

This links to perhaps the most disturbing feature of Zoom: its attention tracking feature. If it’s on, it can report to the host if a user clicks away from the Zoom window for 30 seconds. Working like your boss Is watching over your shoulder makes for a horrendous working environment.

 

This is a panoptical form of surveillance, where individuals will self-regulate, under the fear that they are being watched. This can create highly precarious working environments, as well as contributing to a loss of liberty for many.

 

The asymmetry of information is of great concern. Zoom’s privacy policy is incredibly vague regarding how they use the personal data collected in advertising. They discuss how it will be used for “certain standard advertising tools”.

 

In reality, this means operating in a very similar way to Google Ads or Google Analytics. Remember, they are the company that allowed their own workers to listen to customers recording from their Smart Home speakers.

 

The Zoom case is part of a chilling wider narrative surrounding technology in the COVID-19 pandemic. In a crisis we will rush to embrace technologies of convenience. Sometimes these will be incredibly useful. For example, contract tracing amongst the population will enable for a much greater control of disease spread.

 

However, the aftermath of these series of events will leave us wedded to apparatuses of surveillance. Governments will demand the retention of many surveillance tools in order to prevent “the next crisis”. Companies that have cracked the healthcare market will seek to use our data to sell products that have nothing to do with health. The coronavirus may leave a controlling residue that spells a severe loss of freedom in our day-to-day lives.

 

Hopefully Zoom get their act together soon, rather than exploit a surge in desperate demand by continuing to add software which enables extensive surveillance into our homes, dreams and fears.

 

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