Zoom can’t win. The videoconferencing service that catapulted to both fame and infamy during the pandemic was subjected to a fresh round of criticism on Wednesday. In a tweet, Bloomberg reporter Nico Grant quoted Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, who appeared to express his company’s enthusiasm for working with law enforcement to investigate its users.
But after the tweet went viral, Zoom said the feature Yuan discussed is actually part of a safety initiative to protect users from images of child abuse, which the platform has been criticized for helping to spread. As is so often the case with tweets, no one looks great here.
Zoom’s CEO says he won’t encrypt free calls so Zoom can work more with law enforcement:— Nico Grant (@NicoAGrant) June 3, 2020
“Free users for sure we don’t want to give that because we also want to work together with FBI, with local law enforcement in case some people use Zoom for a bad purpose,” Yuan said. $ZM
It’s worth pointing out that Grant’s tweet, which has more than 18,000 retweets as of this writing, is a bit misleading and takes Yuan’s statement out of context. After Zoom security consultant and former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos called his tweet “incorrect,” Grant said in a follow-up that he “ran out of space” to specify that he was referring to end-to-end encryption. He also referenced his full Bloomberg article. That follow-up tweet currently has three retweets.
Other replies to Grant’s tweets are more anxious, as many called for people to cancel their Zoom accounts. Given the current unrest and the American government’s expressed desire to use any and all means to investigate protesters, it’s understandable why people would automatically equivocate “work together with the FBI” with “allow the government to surveil any activity it deems potentially unlawful.” The truth is a bit more complicated and shows that what Zoom says are its two biggest focuses — user safety and privacy — aren’t always one and the same.
First of all, both free and paid calls on Zoom are encrypted and now offer far better security compared with a few months ago. Encryption is not the same as end-to-end encryption, which encrypts the message to everyone except the sender and receiver. In other words, with end-to-end encryption, neither Zoom nor law enforcement would have a way to intercept and interpret messages. Zoom says it’s working on end-to-end encryption capabilities for its service but will only offer them to business and enterprise customers whose identities the company can confirm. Zoom told Recode it is still deciding whether to extend this to users of its “pro” tier, its cheapest paid plan.
“We plan to provide end-to-end encryption to users for whom we can verify identity, thereby limiting harm to these vulnerable groups,” Zoom said. “Free users sign up with an email address, which does not provide enough information to verify identity.”
The reason for this, the company said, is so that law enforcement can investigate if the platform is used to spread images of child sex abuse. Stamos, Zoom’s outside security consultant, said on Twitter that not giving free users end-to-end encryption enables Zoom’s trust and safety teams to respond to reports of abuse. Zoom’s addition of a “report abuse” option in the app was a response to widespread criticism that the platform offered no way to report Zoombombers who sabotaged calls.
Two weeks later, Zoom said it would indeed provide end-to-end encryption to all users, as long as they verified their phone number first.
“Zoom does not proactively monitor meeting content, and we do not share information with law enforcement except in circumstances like child sex abuse,” the company said in a statement. “We do not have backdoors where participants can enter meetings without being visible to others.”
While most will agree that child sex abuse is bad, there’s also a history of the government using the crime to weaken legal protections that affect everyone, most recently as part of the proposed EARN IT Act, which would force tech companies to institute “best practices” or else be held responsible for images of child sex abuse shared on their platforms. So there is cause for concern for people who are, say, using Zoom to coordinate protests against police violence. In that case, they should turn to apps that do offer end-to-end encryption, such as Signal, WhatsApp, and Telegram.
Don’t feel too bad for Zoom, however. The company’s earnings in the first quarter of 2020 were pretty damn good. Zoom’s revenue is up 169 percent, and the number of companies with more than 10 employees that had signed on as paying customers was up 354 percent over the same time last year, which is both impressive and likely explained by the fact that a pandemic has forced millions of employees to work from home and companies to invest in virtual meeting software. Zoom expects these trends to continue, forecasting $500 million in revenue for the current quarter.
Update, June 17, 6:15 pm ET: Added Zoom’s announcement that it will be offering end-to-end encryption to all users.
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