As the world found itself under siege with the COVID19 pandemic, suddenly because of social distancing protocols people were now not going to offices and working from home. In all of this one app took off like a storm — ZOOM. Its daily active user count went from 10 million to 200 million in March representing a jump of 20x. ZOOM’s valuation reached even newer heights. It hit the $42 billion mark propelling it ahead of unicorns like Uber and Airbnb which have been the darling of silicon valley in the last decade or so. Yet as this boom happens, ZOOM is perhaps the wrong tool for this work from home age. People are ZOOMing for everything — live-streamed concerts, conference calls, general inter-personal video chat, online parties and whatnot. But the reality is that there are safer options.
But how did we get here?
Apart from the obvious boom caused by the work-from-home phenomenon, the reason for the audacious growth of ZOOM was simple — people liked its feature set, they found it simple to use apart from the little case of it being free to use for most users.
- It allows 40-minute calls for up to 100 user meetings for free.
- It is easy to use that even a login isn’t needed.
- It has virtual backgrounds which mask the fact you’re working from home.
- It is easy to use for people who don’t have the app but just need to join meetings by third-parties via a web client.
- It allows users to record the minutes of the meeting with live transcriptions which can be accessed.
- Like virtual backgrounds, it also has a feature which does a virtual touch upon your face with a filter-like effect. This can come in handy if you’ve just woken up and jumped into a call.
- It also plays well with third-party services via its Zoom Marketplace which makes it more than a video-conferencing app.
- It also goes without saying that it is relatively fast and reliable as a video conferencing tool.
- It also has a useful feature for call moderators which allows them to keep track of how attentive are people in the meeting using the camera and eye-tracking.
Clearly, there was a lot going for it, but at the same time, some of its strengths also played into the hands of hackers which has made it a security nightmare for its users. Its exponential growth has also triggered a faster pace of innovation from its rivals who are funded by some of the biggest companies on the planet — Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Cisco amongst others. It also helps that everyone is seeing a massive uptake in users.
What are the problems with ZOOM right now?
ZOOM has now become a privacy nightmare. The heart of the problem isn’t just that it had a sudden surge in users. A lot of the problems can be deeply rooted in the ZOOM’s codebase and attitude towards fixing these issues.
- Nothing can be outlined more than a New York Times article which details how ZOOM’s own clients funded hackers to find loopholes in it. Popular file-sharing service Dropbox which is a ZOOM business client found that it was so vulnerable that it could covertly allow control of users based on macOS.
- Dropbox, which had also invested $5 million in the company, started funding hackers to find vulnerabilities in it. To its horror, it found some troubling security issues which were fixed in a lethargic manner taking over 3 months to fix the issues after being outed by the hacker.
- Vice’s Motherboard uncovered something even more troubling. Security bug brokers were selling access to ZOOM’s security flaws for $500,000 which could potentially grant remote access to a user’s computer.
- Hackers have put the username and passwords of more than half a million ZOOM users up for sale on the dark web. It goes without saying how disturbing this is for anyone using the service.
- There have been numerous instances of uninvited attendees breaking into meetings, a phenomenon which has been coined Zoombombing. ZOOM’s simplicity has made it a ripe target for this as a login isn’t needed as potential people can jump into meetings using a personal ID when per-meeting ID setting and waiting room settings aren’t enabled. The ability to join a call before a host also adds to this problem. Additionally, like social gaming app Houseparty, you also need to lock the meeting room so that people aren’t able to enter virtual meeting rooms.
- Because ZOOM exposes meeting IDs, it was easy to screenshot the meeting IDs just the way British Prime Minister Boris Johnson exposed details of his government remote call using ZOOM on Twitter. ZOOM is moving to rectify this issue.
- ZOOM’s impressive recording and transcription feature is a double-edged sword. If it is enabled on an account, the host can record the meeting along with a text transcription with an addition of a text file of all the chats during that meeting. All of this gets saved to the cloud which can be accessed by authorised users who may not even be part of the meeting.
- A Washington Post report revealed that more than 15,000 ZOOM cloud recordings had been exposed on the web. This happened because of the way ZOOM named the files. Many of these have been posted onto unprotected Amazon Web Services (AWS) buckets making them searchable online.
- Till recently, ZOOM’s iOS app (iPhone and iPad) was using Facebook’s graph API which meant Facebook knew every time you opened ZOOM, what device you used, where you were, your phone carrier and unique advertising identifier. This can be perturbing for the privacy-conscious especially if you’re someone who is in the anti-Facebook camp.
- More recently, ZOOM also came forward and admitted that it routed some calls via servers in China which shouldn’t have happened. This happened in February as a result of it trying to balance the sudden surge in traffic. ZOOM says that it is mitigating this issue now by allowing users to choose data centre regions.
- The last but perhaps the most disturbing bit is that even though ZOOM has been advertised as a truly end-to-end encrypted platform, it was revealed that it isn’t’. ZOOM is quickly moving towards end-to-end encryption.
ZOOM is being banned everywhere
For the time being ZOOM says that it is addressing these issues. Its founder and CEO Eric Yuan has written a blog post outlining that it is halting all feature updates for the time being and refocusing the energies of the company on security for the next 90 days. However, it is also symptomatic of the fact that the application hadn’t been designed for many use-cases that it is being called into right now. ZOOM recently hired former Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos as a consultant who equated ZOOM’s issues with that of people suddenly driving on water. Despite this, ZOOM is getting banned left right and centre.
- Google has banned ZOOM calls for internal or external work use. They view it as a security hazard apart from the fact that the company is also behind fantastic video chat applications like Google Meet and Duo. Apart from Google, even Amazon has restricted the use of ZOOM to non-essential work.
- The Indian government has sent out an advisory against the use of ZOOM. The government has even launched a challenge for local developers to come up with an alternative.
- The New York Department of Education has made moves to stop teachers from using the application. Similarly, in Singapore, it has been banned for educational purposes.
- ZOOM has also been banned by German industrial giant Siemens. Similarly, banking major Standard Chartered Bank has also banned the use of ZOOM.
- In the US, the FBI has also issued an advisory against Zoombombing. The FBI cited two instances of this at schools in Boston Massachusetts and also one in Florida. In one case an uninvited entrant exposed himself in front of a class full of children, while in other cases, one showed off a swastika tattoo and yelled profanities.
- In the US, the Senate has also asked senators to not use ZOOM, while it faces new levels of scrutiny. There are calls for the FTC to draft comprehensive guidelines for online conferencing services.
What are the alternatives
In the midst of all this, there are some superb ZOOM alternatives. Heck, these aren’t even alternatives, these applications were the default options for millions of people till suddenly it became fashionable to ZOOM. It also helps that many of these apps have been made free for the time being as people work from home.
- Google Meet: For all those who are accustomed to living within Google’s ecosystem of apps, this is perhaps the best solution. It can allow up to 25 people on a single call which can be scaled well beyond 100 on the paid tiers. It is simple – works on iOS, Android, Windows and the web, providing unlimited call times unlike the 40 minute limit on ZOOM for calls with more than 3 people. It also doesn’t have advanced features like backdrops, online transcription or even a grid of 49 people at once. But this is going to be the most useful and simple solution for most people especially if they use Gmail and Google Calendar. It also is a very secure solution because of its wide adoption not just in the consumer space but also enterprise and education.
- Microsoft Teams: On paper, Microsoft Teams is more of a Slack rival than a ZOOM rival but its built-in video conferencing features are based on Skype and Link technologies. That’s a serious video conferencing game. Firstly, Microsoft has made it free for 6 months as usage surged for the service during the pandemic. On top of this, it is geared for collaboration and security. It is the super app for the work-from-home age. It can host up to 250 participants, but right now only shows a grid of 4 users, though an update is in the works which will increase that 9 alongside adding virtual backdrops. It also supports call recording, transcription, screen sharing and file sharing with deep integration into Microsoft Office. This is the most feature-rich and diverse solution. It works on iOS, Android, Windows and macOS.
- Skype: For most people, Microsoft Teams will be too complicated and feature-rich. For them, it is the original video chat app — Skype. Yes, Microsoft sure has bungled it as people rarely talk about Skype but it remains one of the best video conferencing applications around. It allows up to 50 people in a call, it has a free tier, it remains pretty simple to use while also having the ability to blur the background. It will work great for connecting with friends and family while being available on Windows, iOS, Android and even the web. It also is useful for calls that don’t need complicated collaboration functions.
- WhatsApp: These days the defacto video call app for most people is WhatsApp which is also the most popular messaging app on the planet. It is doubling its video call capability to having 8 users soon, but this remains a mobile-first experience for iPhone and Android with no PC interface. It will be used for personal video calls at best.
- Facetime: For iOS and macOS users, there is already a pre-built free solution — Facetime which debuted a decade ago with the iPhone 4. It now supports up to 32 participants and supports Apple-specific features like Memoji. Again, this is more of a personal communication tool than something that should be used for work, though it is highly useful if collaboration tools aren’t needed and everyone is using Apple products.
Apart from these 5 applications – there is Google Duo which is one of the best personal video calling apps around. For enterprise users, there is Cisco’s WebEx which is a robust solution.