Will The World Overload Zoom During The COVID-19 Outbreak?
Video conferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams saw a significant increase in demand early in the year as working from home became widespread under social distancing measures introduced to control the coronavirus outbreak.
82 countries are now in either partial or total lockdown, and many citizens are turning to video conferencing simply to stay in touch or attend a lecture or yoga class.
Microsoft Teams “began tottering” under the weight of its “500 percent increase in meetings, calls and conference usage” two weeks ago, and some fear Zoom will experience similar problems, possibly resulting in a complete crash.
Will we Zoom into the future, or will COVID19 claim yet another victim as the video conferencing tool folds under pressure?
What is Zoom?
With nearly 12 million active users, it seems the whole world knows what Zoom is but for those, like me, who are living in a cave with an old dial-up modem, such technology may have passed you by. So, just for you, Zoom is a cloud-based video-conferencing tool that allows multiple users to meet face-to-face using video or to chat via audio conferencing.
Under the unusual conditions brought about by the COVID19 pandemic, people all over the world are turning to Zoom, and other similar platforms like Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams, to hold business meetings, attend lectures, enjoy a little family time, go to digital dance parties, and join weekly fitness classes.
Zooming in on Statistics
Video conferencing platforms have enjoyed a sudden surge in popularity with Zoom seeing “an 84% increase in unique users” between 24th February and 13th March 2020. The coronavirus outbreak is undoubtedly responsible for much of this increase in demand, “it doesn’t hurt that Zoom, Microsoft, Google, and Slack are offering many of their products’ feature for free”.
Microsoft saw daily active users increase to 44 million earlier this month as 1.7 million new users signed up for its Teams service every day between 13th and 19th March.
In the second week of March, Zoom topped the charts in the US as the most downloaded business app on iOS, while Microsoft Teams nabbed fourth place in the App Store. In Italy and China, similar trends are being noted, with the app analytics site, App Annie, saying that, last month, Italy experienced its “biggest week for Business app downloads” ever.
As the rest of the stock market braces itself for the worst slump since the Great Depression, video conferencing companies like Zoom are, quite literally, watching their stock prices zoom in the opposite direction.
Last week, “On a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 4%, Zoom shares were up 22% … boosting the company’s market cap to nearly $44 billion”. Slack wasn’t far behind either with an 11% increase. Slack also announced an all-time record when 12.5 million people simultaneously connected to the instant messaging service earlier this month.
Undoubtedly, these companies initially enjoyed their time in the sun but, as demand continues to increase, it seems some, like Zoom, “maybe regretting [the] decision to make hay while the sun shines” as efforts to raise awareness prove a bit too successful.
Who’ll Pick up the Slack as Teams Tumble?
A surge in popularity and swell in demand is great, but only if the software continues to work effectively. Although big players like Slack, Teams, and Zoom say they haven’t experienced any major issues with their services and are “continually preparing for increased demand”, not all their users agree.
On 16th March, Microsoft Teams users started experiencing problems, with some reporting problems with messages not sending, calendar features struggling, and administration tools misfiring. Others reported problems sharing screens, recording meetings, and creating new teams.
In its initial response to the report, Microsoft said, “We’ve resolved an issue that may have impacted a subset of customers in Europe”, but later admitted that the problems were ongoing. The company tried to reassure users, telling them, “Our engineering teams continue to actively monitor performance and usage trends”.
Google’s been experiencing similar problems and many of its services are currently “facing some kind of downtime or outage”, including Gmail, Google Chat and Google Hangouts. On 26th March, users all over the US and particularly those on the East Coast were unable to access certain Google platforms, including Docs, Drive, Gmail, Hangouts Chat, Meet, Sheets and Slides.
Although people were quick to blame the coronavirus for Google’s downfall, some noted that Gmail experienced similar issues around the same time last year. A spokesperson for the multinational technology giant said a “significant router failure” was behind the network congestion.
So far, Zoom users have either been experiencing a seamless videoconferencing service or are keeping their problems to themselves which is unlikely.
Will Zoom Boom or Bust?
With the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, in self-isolation after having tested positive for COVID19, even the UK government is turning to Zoom in its attempt to carry on business as usual. The United Arab Emirates has always kept a firm hold on instant messaging apps and video conferencing tools, but even it has now granted its citizens access to Zoom. As, day by day, more people sign up, hang out for longer, and invite more people, so fears that Zoom could be overwhelmed by the demand and crash into the virtual void are growing.
Last month, the Chinese version of WhatsApp, WeChat, suffered a similar fate, as it crashed and burned under the weight of a “tidal wave of users” that also temporarily knocked out its video-conferencing feature.
Some believe that, while Zoom is coping now, it hasn’t seen the half of it yet. Many anticipate another huge surge in demand as families attempt to enjoy virtual dinners together over the Easter weekend or attend virtual Seder dinners in celebration of Passover. Literally millions of people could be hanging out on Zoom for hours next month, causing some to worry that the service will crash while other doomsayers are debating if the internet as a whole can survive coronavirus.
In the meantime, Zoom appears confident that it is ready for anything. The company’s senior manager of software-as-a-service operations. Alex Guerrero said, “We’ve been architecting it for many years… and we want it to be extremely scalable, especially in situations like we’re dealing with right now”.
Zoom CEO, Eric Yuan, seems to agree and believes that demand is unlikely to diminish that much even once the virus eases off enough for people to return to the office. According to Yuan, “This will dramatically change the landscape. I truly believe in the future, everyone will [use] video for remote worker collaboration”.
Yuan believes his company will survive and come out on the other side bigger, stronger, and ready to carry on connecting people. Others aren’t so convinced, saying that “future projections of such market dominance… does feel like a stretch”.
Either way, Zoom is hardly a problem-free tool and concerns surrounding both its security and privacy are rising nearly as quickly as its share price.
Zoombombers and Security
While some unexpected visitors offer a little light relief during online lessons, like when Peyton Manning crashed a University of Tennessee communications studies class, others haven’t been so welcome or as entertaining.
Some public meetings with names like WFH (work from home) Happy Hour have been interrupted by pornographic clips, while some children’s reading groups have been confronted with disturbing images and racist comments.
Zoombombing, as it’s now known, is “a form of online harassment in which someone hijacks a group video call to show something inappropriate or unexpected”. The practice has grown exponentially over the past few weeks as educational activities and work meetings have shifted into virtual online meeting rooms.
While a lack of user experience is part of the problem, Zoom’s eagerness to make the tool easy for people to use has led to “one of its biggest privacy issues”, according to a security engineer at Gremlin, Cameron Clark.
Depending on the screen sharing settings activated by the host, for instance, random, uninvited Zoom users have been using the screen-sharing feature to burst in on meetings. Others have been collecting and sharing public links to Zoom meetings in private chat groups and then using them to cause trouble.
Zoom issued a statement about Zoombombing, advising users to “change their settings so that only the host can share their screen”. Other useful tips include:
- Disabling the “Join Before Host” setting reduces random users’ access
- Disabling the “File Transfer” setting prevents digital viruses from spreading
- Disabling the “Allow Removed Participants to Rejoin” setting stops banned attendees from slipping back in
Still, other ways to improve Zoom security and limit unwanted visitors from Zoombombing your meetings include:
- Don’t post meeting links on social media – rather, “email participants the link directly from the Zoom app or, even better, set up a meeting in Google calendar with the Zoom link in the description”
- Don’t use your personal meeting ID for every meeting – instead, generate a unique ID for each meeting to prevent anyone from getting hold of the link to your personal meeting room and using it whenever they feel a little mischievous
- Keeping Zoombombers at bay by changing your settings so every meeting is password protected. This is both a standard operating procedure on many apps and one of the key tips on how to protect your internet privacy.
- Turn off screen sharing
Zooming Away With User Data
This issue is more difficult for users to address and those with concerns about their online privacy, in general, may want to consider turning to a smaller, alternative service, like Signal, that doesn’t collect or retain any data about users other than a phone number.
Zoom doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to user privacy, and was heavily criticized last year after security flaws were found could give hackers the ability to “set up a malicious call, trick users into clicking a link to join it, and instantly add their video feed, letting them look into a victim’s room, office, or wherever their webcam is pointing”.
Even more disturbingly, the flaw meant that users could be unknowingly dropped into a Zoom meeting without taking any action or giving any kind of explicit consent. Although Zoom patched these problems, it’s been accused of having a “cavalier approach to getting user permission” after it took several months to adjust the auto-join video settings responsible for the flaw. Even then, cybersecurity expert, Jonathan Leitschuh, said the new fix was “not enough to address user privacy concerns or the underlying insecurity of the flow that allows Zoom to launch calls from meeting URLs so smoothly”.
As we reported in October last year, Zoom came under fire for sharing user data with Facebook even if those users didn’t have an account with the social media platform. A login feature that used a Facebook software development kit (SDK) would connect those using Zoom’s iOS app to Facebook’s Graph Application Programming Interface (API) the moment the app was launched. This would then “share information with third parties, even if a user doesn’t have a social media account with Facebook”.
Zoom has now removed the features and released an updated version of its iOS app while apologizing for the incident and saying it remains “firmly committed to the protection of users’ data”.
Zoom On or Log Off?
Zoom is a great tool for keeping in touch and staying connected, and its developers seem prepared for whatever the coronavirus and subsequent global lockdown might throw their way. Yes, there are some security issues and a few burning questions surrounding user privacy but, at a time when so many of us are stuck at home, its popularity is unlikely to wane over the next few months, unless it starts experiencing the kind of difficulties Microsoft Teams has been facing.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to digital rights, also acknowledges Zoom’s shortcomings and recommends using one of the best VPNs to boost your security if you decide to carry on Zooming. Throwing in a robust piece of antivirus software won’t hurt either – especially not if you go for one like AVG which includes webcam protection.
Don’t forget, it’s not only video conferencing platforms that can jeopardize your cybersecurity but any connected device in the house. The Internet of Things might be convenient, but it’s far from secure and some believe could be partly responsible for the outbreak of cyber threats that appears to be spreading almost as quickly as coronavirus.
Will the world overload Zoom during the COVID-19 outbreak? Probably not. Will we live to rue the day we were so cavalier about our internet privacy? Quite possibly.