Zoom: the Pros and Cons of the Video Communications Application

Although Zoom has definitely helped us get a handle on remote learning, some believe that the site may actually do more harm than good.

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Kaitlyn Chan

Ever since quarantine began, Emily Chen ’21 has been frequently using Zoom as a platform for remote learning and for online class sessions. Chen initially did not realize how untrustworthy the site was, but the backlash that Zoom has received for its security and privacy flaws has raised her concerns. “At first, I really liked that Zoom was convenient, easy to use, and inexpensive. However, its security risks are definitely an eye-opener for me. It shows that while Zoom has some good aspects, it also has some alarming qualities that should not be overlooked,” said Chen.

Ghost town. Those are the two words that pop in my mind when I imagine how a city like ours must look during the Coronavirus pandemic quarantine. With most areas in the nation taking necessary measures to ensure the safety of their citizens, we can expect to see nothing but empty streets and closed businesses, to hear nothing but silence outside, for, at the very least, the next few months. The cars left dormant on the curb, the empty trains and buses, the widely distanced people on the streets, and the numerous businesses with their shutters locked all build up to the undeniable fact that what we are currently experiencing is a global pause – a once in a lifetime event. So in the meantime, how are we, as a society, staying in touch and communicating with one another from within the walls of our houses? How are we going about our daily lives – attending class, having discussions with colleagues, making business presentations, talking with our friends and distant relatives- when we can’t even go outside? 

 Well, the application that immediately comes to mind is Zoom. The platform has been one of the go-to sites to connect with others during this pandemic. Zoom had 10 million global users in December 2019, and the number of Zoom users rose to approximately 200 million global users by March 2020, when the lockdown began, before increasing another 100 million by April 2020. It isn’t a surprise as to why. The site’s convenience, free access, and easy navigation has made it ever more appealing for us to connect to our friends, teachers, classmates, and co-workers. It’s safe to say that Zoom has made this quarantine experience slightly more bearable.

But don’t let the platform’s convenience make you overlook its fundamental flaws. After all, the pros are only one side of the story. And in this case, the cons of Zoom are just too alarming and detrimental for you to let them slip by. 

First things first, we ought to start with what should be prioritized foremost in the assessment of any site or application: the extent to which it protects its users from privacy and security risks. Unfortunately for users, Zoom does not pass this test. In fact, even the New York City Department of Education expressed concerns about the security risks associated with this site; for this reason, up until last month, NYC DOE officials had banned Zoom from being used as a remote learning platform. Of the dozens of security issues associated with this platform, the most notable as well as the most concerning is hijacking, or “Zoombombing.” Trolls and hackers are easily able to use malware to access video feeds and hijack web cameras, allowing them to interrupt video meetings and attack users with inappropriate and derogatory content. Zoom’s security is so weak that by merely searching up URLs containing “Zoom.us” on a browser or on social media, a myriad of unprotected links to multiple meetings will pop up, enabling anyone to join. 

Additionally, privacy risks are a whole other realm of concerns users must be aware of. According to its privacy policy, installing Zoom will give the company the power and permission to do essentially whatever they want with your personal data. The same goes for sites such as Microsoft’s Skype. Now, I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t feel particularly comfortable knowing that strangers are snooping through my private information. 

The moral of the story: safety comes first. Although Zoom’s chief executive Eric Yuan addressed these issues in a blog post about a month ago, apologizing for these risks and guaranteeing to the public Zoom’s intentions to strengthen the site’s security and privacy, there are serious questions as to how much the public can really trust him, especially when such breaches have occurred as recently as only a few weeks ago.

If there’s one thing that history has taught us it is that if a company cannot guarantee the privacy and safety of its customers, we should not continue to use their product simply because of its convenience, practicality, or inexpensiveness. Privacy and security concerns should be the number one priority in both our minds and the minds of the company. After all, once information enters the Internet and into the hands of others, you can rarely get it back. 

The Facebook security breach that leaked the information of millions of users in 2019 is just one of many examples. As writer Brian X. Chen mentions in his New York Times article, “The Lesson We Are Learning From Zoom,” Ring, which is an Amazon-owned doorbell camera, was easy to install, but it was also easy to hijack. Hackers were readily able to hijack and disable the cameras in many households, causing an increase in the package thefts that Ring supposedly prevented. Needless to say, if a company fails to protect you, you should be reluctant to ever trust it again — once a security risk, always a security risk. 

Zoom seems to cross the boundaries of privacy at another, more personal level as well. Aside from the digital risks associated with the site, these online at-home lessons, conversations, and meetings violate the fundamental nature of professional relationships. They expose the private and personal details of the lives of students, teachers, and co-workers. Dr. Karen Strassler, an anthropology professor at Queens College, writes in her New York Times article, “What We Lose When We Go From the Classroom to Zoom” that the classroom setting is critical for effective learning. There, students are seen and regarded only as equal, fellow learners. They are able to thrive in an environment that shields them from the disruptions, distractions, and chaos of their domestic lives. “[These] glimpses into my students’ homes violate the implicit contract of the classroom, where students have some measure of control over what parts of their lives outside of school come into view… As a teacher, I cannot level a deeply unequal playing field. But within the classroom, my students and I can try to forge a community where we listen to one another with respect, where everyone has a right to the floor, and where students share their experiences because of the trust we’ve built together, not because their private lives are on display via Zoom,” Strassler writes. 

Alongside these security and privacy concerns, Zoom is a social barrier that reinforces feelings of isolation and disconnection. According to author Kate Murphy in her New York Times article, “Why Zoom Is Terrible,” the distortion and delays of face-to-face video communication (the “blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness, and out-of-sync audio”) confuses our brains and predisposes us to a sense of uneasiness and exhaustion. Furthermore, the lack of authentic face-to-face contact causes conversation to be less interpersonal and intimate. As humans, we naturally mimic emotions and facial expressions as a way to express empathy (this is known as the facial feedback effect) and build social relationships. The facial distortions that occasionally occur while we talk on platforms such as Zoom or Skype prevents us from emulating another person’s expression, which diminishes our ability to understand and emotionally connect with one another, therefore strengthening our sense of loneliness. 

Zoom video chats may weaken our trust in each other as well. Because many do not look at the camera when communicating with others, this lack of eye contact works in both ways; it can make us appear more guilty than we truly are, or it can make it much easier to lie and get away with it. Our tendency to look at our reflection rather than at the camera additionally causes us to appear uninterested. By seemingly erasing the presence of the other person, this method of communication promotes an even greater psychological sense of detachment and separation. That being said, because of the inaccurate way face-to-face video communications make us appear, the credibility and justness of depositions, hearings, and trails that are now held remotely and virtually can be called into question. 

But without Zoom, how will we communicate with each other? Here’s one possible solution: simple voice calls. As Murphy says in her article, “No facial cues are better than faulty ones. The absence of visual input may even heighten people’s sensitivity to what’s being said.” More visual contact does not guarantee more intimacy. In fact, a mere voice call may work better in building genuine connections with other people. In the words of Dr. Sheryl Brahnam, a professor specializing in information technology and cybersecurity at Missouri State University, “You can have a sense of hyper-presence on the telephone because of that coiled relationship where it feels like my mouth is right next to your ear, and vice versa.” Your ability to hear tone shifts, brief hesitations, and one’s rhythmic breathing in phone calls allows you to develop a greater sense of intimacy and authenticity with the person you are communicating with. 

Unfortunately, many students are unaware of the potential risks that Zoom has. “I began using Zoom because a lot of the lessons that I attend for school are streamed on that platform. I didn’t realize that Zoom had so many security and privacy risks, or that the distortions could have an effect on you,” Emily Chen ‘21 said. But now that you see the full picture — the pros as well as the cons — of using Zoom, I’ll ask you again: does Zoom really do more good than harm? 

So the next time you need to contact your friends from the safety of your home, maybe skip the laptop and pick up the phone instead.

“I began using Zoom because a lot of the lessons I attend for school are streamed on that platform. I didn’t realize that Zoom had so many security and privacy risks, or that the distortions could have an effect on you,” Emily Chen ‘21 said. 

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