As It Happens

What is 'Zoom bombing'? Scientist threatened while defending PhD online

A Duke University student turned to the video conferencing software Zoom to defend her PhD when she became a victim of what’s being called “Zoom-bombing” — when malicious actors take over digital meetings and cause mayhem.

New York's attorney general has flagged privacy and security concerns with the video conferencing software

Members of the city commission to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease vote during a meeting via Zoom video link in Lviv, Ukraine. (Roman Baluk/Reuters)

Cell biologist Ceri Weber planned to defend her PhD in person at the end of March, but the coronavirus pandemic thwarted her plans. 

So, like many people who are practicing physical distancing, the Duke University student turned to the video conferencing software Zoom.

But Weber says she became a victim of what's being called "Zoom-bombing" — when malicious actors take over digital meetings and cause mayhem.

"We are deeply upset to hear about the incidents involving this type of attack. We take the security of Zoom meetings seriously," the company said in an e-mailed statement.

Zoom recommends thoroughly checking security settings to make sure that meetings are private and password-protected, and reporting any incidents directly to them. 

Weber is now teaching others how to be vigilant about security on Zoom. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

At what point did you start to realize that your Zoom seminar was not going as planned?

Initially, it seemed like it was just microphone disruption.

But once the disruption started to actually interfere with my advisor, who was speaking at the time, we were worried something was going on. 

Then when I started to speak, the interruptions actually became music and really vicious [language] —  like, they were threatening me and saying things to me. And that's when we knew that something bad was going on.

Ceri Weber is a cell biologist from Duke University who was the victim of a 'Zoom bombing' while defending her PhD online. (Submitted by Ceri Weber)

What had happened, as far as you understand?

We think that because I had shared the link widely with the science community online, that some people had just gotten their hands on it and wanted to just cause problems. 

We don't know who they are. They were strangers to me. They had fake names when they logged in. And we don't know if we'll be able to identify them.

What were [these individuals] saying?

They initially were just repeating science words, jargon that I had said in my presentation. ... Then they told me to shut up and played songs. And then at the very end, they threatened me.

Threatened you in what way?

This is a content warning, I guess, but they threatened to rape me.

Wow. And what could you do at that point? Did you shut the whole thing down?

Some coworkers of mine were also hosts of this digital realm, which meant that they had the ability to control the security settings while I was busy focusing on the presentation. 

So thanks to them, they locked the room so nobody could enter it anymore. And then they started removing people that were obviously saying something or looked like they had suspicious names, so they couldn't come back in. 

And that eventually shut it down.

This is… Zoom bombing. That's the newest phrase we have entered into our vocabulary. Had you ever heard of such things before Friday?

I had first learned of it just a few days before. My mom had actually sent me some articles. She had read about it. And I immediately started putting in security settings. 

But in the last week, it seems to have gotten much, much worse for many people.

What examples of Zoom bombing have you and your mom found out about?

I've heard of other types where, because you're sharing your screen and an image of yourself, people will put on inappropriate images that could be racist or sexist or, like, pornographic imagery, which obviously is really disturbing to other people who are reviewing it.

What is Zoom saying about this?

Not much. I have gotten emails from them on ways in which they advise changing security settings. I did file a complaint and that hasn't been followed up yet. 

Most of what I've heard has been from my university, who has gone out of their way to address the security problems as best as can be advised. So that has been really great.

A group of co-workers have a video chat using Zoom. New York's attorney general says the company has been 'slow to address security flaws that would enable malicious third parties to, among other things, gain surreptitious access to webcams.' (CBC)

The fact that there were physical threats to you, rape threats, have you reported it to the police?

I'm working with my university to see if we can identify who was involved. I did report it to Zoom. And so I'm trying to sort of make a plan for what comes next. But I'm not opposed to doing that.

New York's attorney general sent a letter to Zoom this week over these privacy concerns. And The New York Times, who has seen the letter, they said that the attorney general says "the company has been slow to address security flaws ... that [could] enable malicious third parties to, among other things, gain surreptitious access to webcams." And so what concerns do you have, not just for yourself, but for others who might be using this platform? Why are you talking about this openly? What would you want people to understand?

What I've learned from my initial post online that got a lot of attention was a lot of people were unaware and had been unable to protect their meetings as a consequence. 

So I really hope that people are able to put in these security measures and that they work. 

I think for people like me who wanted to have a public platform for whatever they're doing should look for maybe other services that can offer more security, or at least a way in which people can't interfere in the same way. 

As far as Zoom goes, I really hope they're able to address these things fast. I think Zoom offers a lot of really wonderful things right now. It lets us see other people and talk to them and engage with them. And in that sense, it's a really nice platform to have.

Just finally, your PhD defence … is about turtle nesting. Were you able to defend it? 

I did, yeah. After about 10 minutes and the interruptions stopped, I just pressed ahead and I successfully defended my dissertation. So I'm done.

Written by Sheena Goodyear and Katie Geleff. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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