April 3, 2020

‘Zoom bombs’ create a concern for distance learning in NM


All schools in New Mexico will remain closed through the remainder of the academic year.

For the past several weeks, people all over the country have flocked to online meeting platforms in an attempt to stay connected with both friends and coworkers amid the global COVID-19 pandemic that has resulted in a number of mandatory shelter in place orders. 

But as more people use virtual meeting platforms like Google or Zoom, there are reports of increased malicious activity, which is now known to some as “Zoom-bombing.” Meetings around the country have reportedly been interrupted with unknown users who use racist language or share pornographic material. 

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission experienced its first “Zoom bomb” on Wednesday when, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican, an unknown individual used offensive language before a loud mix of talking and noises led to an abrupt end to the meeting. 

This and other incidents across the country have led some to  question whether the state’s school districts can adequately protect children from inappropriate words or behaviors as the state prepares to move to distance learning for the rest of the academic year.

In an email to NM Political Report, PRC spokesperson Liberty Manabat said the disruption may have prevented members of the public from listening to the decision process of the commission, but that the group was able to reconvene Wednesday afternoon with new conditions for watching the meeting. 

“Steps were already taken to prevent it from happening in the future and the Commission was able to reconvene and finish the open meeting including all agenda items,” Manabat wrote.  “Additional administrative features were utilized such as requiring participants to register, restricting audio access, disabling the chat feature, etc. to prevent any incident of this kind from happening in the future.”

Public Education Department spokeswoman Nancy Martira said Zoom bombing “continues to be a weird and disturbing trend.”

“Currently, PED is working on a guidance memos for schools about best practices for keeping online meetings safe for students and staff,” Martira said. 

Both Santa Fe and Albuquerque public school districts have discouraged teachers and families from using Zoom for distance learning. 

APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said the district is pushing teachers to use Google platforms to connect with students. 

“We support the use of Google Meet for schools, which requires an APS-sponsored Google account, so outside individuals are not able to join without permission, and all participants must be identified and accountable,” Armenta said. 

According to a Santa Fe Public Schools “best practices” document for teachers, the district is also encouraging teachers to use Google Meet. The document, which SFPS made available to NM Political Report, also encourages teachers to be vigilant about new names showing up in class meetings that do not belong there. 

“If you find an uninvited guest continues to join the session, instruct all students to leave the session, or remove each student one by one,” the document reads. 

SFPS has also encouraged teachers to only share meeting links to addresses within the district’s email system and to remain in control of class meetings. 

The FBI has issued a warning about using online platforms like Zoom and has encouraged extra precautions like not publicly sharing a meeting link on social media and to ensure that program settings limit who can enter meetings. 

Some agencies in New Mexico have already utilized Zoom settings that require a moderator to approve participants and a virtual waiting room for those who are waiting for verification. 

The City of Albuquerque, for example, has required extra verification for members of the press who want to attend daily online press briefings from Mayor Tim Keller. A spokesman for Keller did not respond to an email inquiring about any additional precautions. 

PED Secretary Ryan Stewart used Zoom last week for a press call to announce that school closures would extend through the rest of the academic year. Members of the press who joined that call were required to RSVP and wait for approval. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, said since the governor does not hold public meetings like other departments, there have not been any problems yet. 

“Certainly we are wary about that during a press conference-type environment, but we would work to enact some form of safeguard,” Stelnicki said. 

Lujan Grisham’s office has used Facebook or the state Legislature’s website to issue updates on the spread of COVID-19.

In a blog post on Wednesday, Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan said the use of the meeting platform “ballooned overnight” and that the service was originally designed for large companies with in-house technology support. 

“However, we did not design the product with the foresight that, in a matter of weeks, every person in the world would suddenly be working, studying, and socializing from home,” Yuan wrote. “We now have a much broader set of users who are utilizing our product in a myriad of unexpected ways, presenting us with challenges we did not anticipate when the platform was conceived.”

Yuan said the company has already made some security changes and is set to make more in the near future. But for agencies like the PRC, using platforms like Zoom, but also limiting who can speak presents a speed bump for public comments. But Manabat said those who wish to share their thoughts with the PRC can submit them by email at least 30 minutes before the meeting starts.