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Zoom CEO Eric Yuan Pledges to Address Security Shortcomings in ‘The Next 90 Days’

David Jelke

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Photo of Zoom CEO Eric Yuan

April 20, 2020— When a Zoom user had his question read out during the “Ask Eric Anything” webinar on Wednesday, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan listened intently.

“Will Zoom be adding more emojis to its social features anytime soon?” the user asked.

Yuan disappointed the user immediately. “We’re not going to allocate any new features to that,” he said. Yuan then made it clear that for “the next 90 days,” Zoom will be “incredibly focused on enhancing our privacy and security.”

The “Ask Eric Anything” webinar, a weekly series in which Zoom users tune in to ask questions about Americans’ go-to video conferencing technology during the pandemic, launched in response to widespread privacy failings by the company’s flagship communications technology.

Almost as quickly as the company name became a verb, “zoombombing” entered the national lexicon to describe the act of anonymous trolls entering a Zoom meeting a neglected URL and posting pornographic, racist, or generally inappropriate material.

In fact, Zoom announced over the webinar several updates in an effort to assuage users— and shareholders— about concerns surrounding privacy. The first thing the company announced was a new hire.

Alex Stamos, the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former chief security officer of Facebook, announced on the webinar that he is “Zoom’s new outside advisor.”

“I want to apply my skills to the problem we are facing,” Stamos said. He called Zoom “a critical part of the lives of hundreds of millions of people” and identified education as the “most interesting area” in which Zoom can benefit society.

Defending Zoom against complaints of ‘Zoomboming’

Stamos took the time to defend Zoom from its blemishes in the press. “Every single company… will face” the problem of security failings and claimed that “there’s never been a company that’s had to scale this quickly.”

Stamos related how Zoom is taking active steps to stop the bleeding by “proactively locking” the “bad actors” before they can compromise an account.

Stamos suggested that much of the cause of Zoombombing rests on the manager of a meeting. Resultingly, he implored users to avoid making a “mistake” by using “the same password” that they use for other accounts

“Go get a password manager,” Stamos recommended.

Stamos also expressed optimism on the webinar. He said that Americans are “very versatile and when we find a problem, we find a solution.”

Zoom also announced a new feature rolling out sometime this weekend. In addition to Zoombombing, the company has also been sharply criticized for keeping one of its many data servers in China, a country with which the U.S. has privacy disagreements and with which the U.S.-based Zoom has ties.

Occasionally, Yuan admitted, Americans’ data would be sent to China when other data centers were offline, which hypothetically left them vulnerable to data harvesting by the Chinese.

In response, Oded Gal, chief product officer of Zoom, announced that by April 25, the Chinese server will be deactivated automatically for all users that have not explicitly opted to have their data routed to it.

In addition, Zoom has hired a new cybersecurity team called Luta Security to help catch bugs before users do. Luta Security is headed by Katie Moussouris, who worked on similar “bug bounty” programs for Microsoft and the Pentagon.

The CEO expressed faith in these changes. Yuan says he has “much more high confidence now.”

The question is whether this high confidence will transfer to Zoom’s users and shareholders.

David Jelke was a Reporter for Broadband Breakfast. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in neuroscience. Growing up in Miami, he learned to speak Spanish during a study abroad semester in Peru. He is now teaching himself French on his iPhone.

Privacy

National Plan Required For Consumer Privacy, Congresswoman says

Samuel Triginelli

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Screenshot of Suzan DelBene from C-Span

April 1, 2021 — A Congresswoman from Washington State, who introduced federal legislation that would be the first national consumer privacy law if adopted, says the federal government is being outpaced by some states that are implementing their own consumer privacy legislation.

“There is a significant problem with consumer privacy in the US,” said Representative Suzan Delbene on Tuesday during a New Democratic Network event. Delbene introduced her Information Transparency, and Personal Data Control Act, a wide ranging federal privacy legislation, on March 10. Delbene is the vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee, and is the chair of the House New Democrat Coalition caucus.

There is no federal data privacy law, which has forced some states to pursue their own consumer data policies. That includes California and, recently, Virginia. Some have said the concern is that there will be a patchwork of different privacy legislation that may end up just confusing Americans.

“We need a uniform set of rights for consumers and businesses standards to follow in the digital world,” DelBene said.

The bill states that companies must provide privacy polies in plain language, must allow users to opt-in for personal information gathering, must disclose who personal information is being shared with, and must submit to privacy audits every two years. The federal law would also give the government the ability to preempt existing state laws.

Simon Rosenberg, president of New Democrat Network, said about the bill that, “together, we have a lot of work to do in the coming years to restore the promise of the Internet. One of the areas of greatest need is creating a single working privacy standard for the United States.

“In her bill, the approach Representative DelBene takes to protecting Americans’ privacy is smart, measured, and will undoubtedly be highly influential in shaping the approach Congress takes in the days ahead. It is a very welcome addition to the vital debate underway about our digital future,” Rosenberg added.

The purpose of this bill is to ensure that privacy policies are transparent and clear. “Many consumers are given lots of information with lots of legal terms, that leads them to click the accept button without knowing what they have signed up for,” DelBene said.

“There is an urgent need for consumers to understand what data is being shared,” she added. “We want to make sure there is enforcement. The law says that this will be the responsibility of the Federal Trade Commission, so the FTC must have the resources to do this.

“I think my bill is focused on privacy specifically because I think it is foundational. We build on important things, such as AI, facial recognition, and all the other issues we need to address. If we don’t start addressing the issues of data privacy, it will be hard to imagine how it will the expansion of laws to address a broader set of issues that need to get ahead of.”

Congresswoman DelBene believes the bill can be bipartisan, but she wants to make sure Congress understands its importance. “I’m not sure Congress understands these issues, so it takes a collective effort to push it forward.”

DelBene says she’s confident that Congress will follow the bill, despite many congresspeople who she said are hesitant to take that first step.

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Privacy

Attach Strings To Data Collection To Combat Surveillance Capitalism, Experts Suggest

Samuel Triginelli

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Photo of Marietje Schaake from the European Parliament

March 29, 2021 – Laws addressing how much data can be collected should be among new regulations that must ensure data collection from big technology companies doesn’t harm Americans, according to a March 17 panel of academics at the South by Southwest conference.

The era of corporate self-regulation is now up, said Marietje Schaake of the Standford University Cyber Policy Center and panelist at SXSW conference discussing the “techno-democratic” approach to Big Tech, including what to do about surveillance capitalism.

Surveillance capitalism is an economic system centered on commodifying personal data with the core purpose of profit-making.

“We have heard many pledges, many promises, and good intention offers for solutions for self-regulatory initiatives. And the time is out for those,” she said.

Schaake said it is time the government attach consequences to data collection to the detriment of the public and to set clear limits on collection practices.

“We have tried for too long, and it has led to several distractions and lost time to make sure that the rule of law is leading and that there are enforceable accountable, transparent expectations placed on these companies,” she said.

Joan Donovan, a social scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School, said what’s critical is how much data tech companies should be allowed to collect and under what conditions should they sell it to ensure rights aren’t violated.

“The tech sector as it is built now, relies on harvesting so much data about an individual that their products and the entire economy they are built on could not exist” if there were robust rights and privacy protections in place, Donovan said.

She said the discussion about regulating these businesses should include moving from a focus on protecting enterprise to protecting human rights.

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Privacy

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Calls for Update to Children’s Privacy Legislation

Derek Shumway

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March 11, 2021 – House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., on Thursday called for an update to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act at subcommittee hearing on “Kids Online During COVID: Child Safety in an Increasingly Digital Age.”

“The challenges children face online existed before the pandemic, but it’s only gotten worse,” he said.

Visiting in person with extended family and friends have so far become a thing of the past as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Many other in-person activities have been replaced with video games, social media, and other video services.

Kids’ screen time has doubled during the pandemic, said Pallone. The effects of too much screen time can increase instances of anxiety, sleep deprivation, obesity, and cyber bullying, he said.

The increased screen time due to the pandemic has turned consumers into victims of what he called harassment and dark pattern manipulation led by advertisers. Children cannot defend themselves like adults in managing these predatory practices, he said.

“Despite laws to protect children’s privacy, data collection and tracking of children is disturbingly prevalent.” He went on to criticize many apps targeting children on mobile devices are notorious for collecting personal information, which is then bought and sold, resulting in advertising meant to manipulate children.

He said that digital ad spending specifically targeting children was expected to reach $1.7 billion this year. COPPA, which hasn’t been updated since 2013, needs to be updated because, he said, internet companies have since continued to target children.

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