Is Zoom Evil or Unlucky?

Your favorite video conferencing platform is entering a rough patch

I’ve been on a lot of Zoom video calls lately. Outside of Slack and email, it’s the main way I can connect with my coworkers as a group. I’ve participated in Zoom calls for entertainment and even an impromptu pan-generational birthday party (there was no cake, but we did sing).

Zoom concerns
 Lifewire / Brianna Gilmartin

In the space of a month, Zoom has become synonymous with connection. We’re using other video-conferencing platforms, but none have merged with the COVID-19 zeitgeist like Zoom, which is stunning when you consider its relative anonymity compared to, for instance, FaceTime before the pandemic.

The nine-year-old company, which was founded by a former Cisco WebEx engineer, only went public a year ago and was, until recently, mostly thought of as an enterprise communication and collaboration platform. Now I’d argue that just as many consumers as businesspeople are using it almost every day.

Zoom
Zooming. Lifewire 

In a sort of reverse BYOD (bring your own device to work) flow, employees forced to use Zoom at home started looking at it as a personal group communication tool. When the work from home day ends, the virtual cocktail party kicks off, for many, on Zoom.

In February, Zoom was reporting a 90% rise in app downloads (and this is before COVID-19 really started to hit the U.S.) On March 7, which feels like six months ago, Zoom CEO predicted this fundamental shift, explaining on an earnings call, “Given this coronavirus, I think overnight, almost everybody really understood they needed a tool like this.” At that point, the company was seeing a measurable rise in new users, most of them on the free side of the service, which allows for groups of up to 100 people to convene in a Zoom video meeting room for up to 40 minutes at a time.

Tiger King and Lance Ulanoff
Do not judge me. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff / Zoom

Aw, Shucks, Zoom

Stories on how to use Zoom started appearing everywhere, as consumers hopped on Google desperately seeking guidance for their new video communication pursuits.

As Zoom’s use spread from conference rooms to home offices, virtual classrooms, and TV studios, our feeds filled will funny, awkward Zoom moments as video-conferencing newbies learned the ins-and-outs of video etiquette.

Creative Zoom virtual backgrounds is a major pursuit. I’ve literally seen libraries of images and, in my own Zoom activities have used a variety of silly backgrounds, all in an attempt to lighten what can honestly be some pretty dark days.

I knew things had reached a fever pitch when misguided investors bought so much stock in Zoom Technologies that the SEC had to halt trading on that company, which, by the way, wasn’t Zoom Video Communications at all, but a relatively unknown communications equipment firm.

For a little while, Zoom felt like the perfect combination of rockstar tech company and hero platform.

A Hero Falls

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” It’s one of my favorite lines from Batman: The Dark Knight. In a rather ham-fisted case of foreshadowing, District Attorney Harvey Dent (alter Two-Face) says it to Rachel Dawes and Bruce Wayne (Batman). Corny? Sure. True? Absolutely. And it’s just as true for technology as it is for people.

Think about it, Facebook was once beloved, but now people believe Mark Zuckerberg is evil and the 14-year-old company set out to sell our information for its own profit (not everyone, but many people think this while still using it every day). 

Zoom’s trajectory is, I’d say, more extreme than most. As quickly as COVID-19 has changed the world, Zoom has risen to an incredible level of public consciousness, become almost ubiquitous, and is now pilloried for myriad security and privacy missteps. That all happened in 30 days.

I’m not excusing Zoom's missteps. It has to own up to and fix them.

The downfall, such as it is, started when Motherboard discovered that Zoom was handing over user information to Facebook, even for those users who weren’t on Facebook. Zoom quickly closed off the data hole, apologized, and hoped to move on. 

Soon, after, though articles with titles like, "Is Zoom Safe?” started to appear and the platform is now grappling with its own hacking verb, Zoombombing, which is when an uninvited prankster (or worse) inserts themselves into your video conference and drops nasty comments, unwanted video and, yes, even porn.

I've noted numerous fresh articles about how to keep yourself safe on video conferencing platforms but the focus is clearly on Zoom.

Then, just this week, a security researcher discovered another security hole on the Mac version of the app.

Bad App, Bad Luck or Something Else

This emerging “Zoom is Terrible” series is not surprising. Like a shark circling an injured diver, security-focused analysts and web sites smell blood in the water.

There’s an intimation that Zoom has somehow mislead users or is setting them up for data and identity theft. It’s like a super-charged Facebook that’s somehow sucking in millions of unwitting consumers (and businesses) all the while preparing to steal their data and destroy their lives.

I don’t believe that.

Last year when Zoom first went public, its value skyrocketed to over $15 billion. Even Zoom CEO Eric Yuan thought the share price was too high. At that time, no one could’ve foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic or Zoom’s unexpected role in it.

Batman
Zoom's fate?. Batman: The Dark Knight / Warner Bros.

Still, Zoom’s 2019 IPO did highlight some risk factors that basically predicted the challenges it's facing now. According to Bloombergthe company cited cybersecurity threats, service outages, and competition as significant risks.

What Zoom did not predict was how its lauded ease of use and penetration into some major tech companies would help propel it to a usage scale it arguably wasn’t prepared to handle.

Think about it this way. Hollywood typically makes 700 films a year, but there are only a few popular enough that people spend hours combing over them looking for plot and visual holes. They’ll even make YouTube videos to highlight them. Most movies, though, are rarely seen or puzzled over. Zoom is like an obscure film suddenly thrust into blockbuster status.

Zoom is like an obscure film suddenly thrust into blockbuster status.

I’m not excusing Zoom's missteps. It has to own up to and fix them. Right now, it’s engaged in a game of whack-a-mole as security and tech policy experts pore over it, its terms of service documents, and every line of code looking for errors. Zoom would be smart to do this itself (though I imagine much of its current efforts are devoted to keeping its overtaxed network alive).

In fact, as I completed this. Zoom published a lengthy blog post on its efforts to serve a massive influx of new customers and what it's doing to improve the service and ensure the privacy and security of its users.

So What

Zoom has something else in common with tech punching bags: People are still using it and, with the White House’s social distancing rules in place for at least another month, it’s unlikely they’ll stop.

Zoom is not perfect, but it’s also not evil. It’s just another tech tool somewhat unprepared for its moment in the spotlight. It’s your responsibility to use it wisely.

Like this column? Get more like it delivered directly to your inbox. Sign-up for Untangled, a more sensible approach to technology.