SAN FRANCISCO – Zoom, the video conferencing provider whose business is booming with the COVID-19 pandemic, has plans to strengthen encryption on video calls made by paying clients and institutions such as schools, but not to users of their popular free accounts, said an officer of the company Friday.
The company on Thursday previewed its intentions over a conversation with groups of civil liberties and fighters with sexual abuse allegations, and Zoom security consultant Alex Stamos confirmed the plans in an interview Friday.
Stamos said the plans were subject to change and it was still unclear whether nonprofits or other users, such as political dissidents, could be eligible for accounts that allow for safer video meetings. He said a combination of technological, security and business factors went into the plan, which attracted mixed reactions from privacy advocates.
Zoom has attracted millions of free and paying customers amid the pandemic partly because users could attend a meeting – something that now happens 300 million times a day – without registering. But that has left more opportunities for troublemakers to slip into meetings, sometimes after pretending to be an invitation.
Frontier Foundation electronic researcher Gennie Gebhart, who was on Thursday’s call, said she hoped Zoom would change course and offer protected video widely. But Civil Liberties Union technology associate Jon Civilas said the strategy seems a reasonable compromise.
Security experts and law enforcement have warned that sexual predators and other criminals are increasingly using encrypted communications to prevent discovery.
“Those of us who do secure communications believe that we need to do things about the real terrible game,” Callas said. “Charging up end-to-end coding is a way to get rid of the riff-raff.”
Zoom hired Stamos and other leading experts into a series of security flaws that led some institutions to ban its use. Last week, Zoom published a technical paper on their coding plans, without saying how broad they would reach.
“At the same time as Zoom is trying to improve security, they are also significantly improving their confidence and security,” said Stamos, a former chief security officer at Facebook.
“The CEO looks at several arguments. The current plan is paid customers plus business accounts where the company knows who they are, ‘he said.
Providing much encryption at each meeting would mean Zoom’s trust and security team will not be able to monitor what is happening or respond effectively to abuse in real time, Stamos said.
An end-to-end model, which means that no one but the participants and their devices can see and hear what is happening, would also exclude people who need to call from a phone line.
From a business perspective, it is difficult to earn money if you offer a refined and expensive coding service for free. Facebook intends to fully encrypt Messenger, but it deserves huge sums from its other services.
Other encrypted communications providers pay business users or act as nonprofits, such as Signal’s creators.
Zoom has also faced a variety of regulators, including the US Federal Trade Commission, which is investigating its previous allegations of coding that have been criticized as exaggerated or false, Stamos acknowledged. With the Department of Justice and some members of Congress condemning strong encryption, a major expansion there could attract unusual new attention by Zoom, privacy experts said.
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