Zoom, Video Conference

There has been a resurgence in “Zoom bombing,” according to Gary Sikorski, director of community-wide security at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

When you attend a virtual synagogue service, Torah class or family meeting and an uninvited guest shows up ranting antisemitic and racist slogans, it hurts. This “Zoom bombing,” according to Carolyn Normandin, regional director of ADL Michigan, “is nefarious. It reaches into the home. It is a violation. It is awful.”

According to Gary Sikorski, director of community-wide security, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, we experienced a rash of Zoom bombing in the spring and, in the past few weeks, we have seen a resurgence.

Vandals had their opportunity to crash virtual meetings in the spring, as institutions were learning to operate videoconferencing technology. On March 24, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued stay-at-home orders intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, synagogues, businesses, schools, community organizations, and families suddenly had to learn to use videoconferencing apps. Sikorski observes, “Back then, organizations would post the links to their services and meetings on their websites.”

Nazi slogans, KKK photographs and obscene graphics appeared at Jewish events online. On March 30, the Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation hosted a web talk on how to combat antisemitism, featuring Yifa Segal of the International Legal Forum. Early in Segal’s talk, an intruder proclaimed “Sieg Heil!” and continued to spout hateful comments. Andria Spindel, the executive director of the Canadian organization, said “It was like Nazis had walked into your living room.”

Ohr Torah Stone, an Israeli institute of Jewish studies, canceled a class by its president, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, April 22; look for a video of the class now, and you find this message: “Unfortunately, this shiur [class] was Zoom bombed by antisemitic hackers and, as a result, there is no recording. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Sharona Halickman was better prepared. Halickman is founder and director of Torat Reva Yerushalayim, which brings in-person Torah study to shut-ins in old-age homes, nursing facilities and private homes with babies in the Jerusalem area. Then, suddenly, everyone became a shut-in. Halickman switched to teaching online. Shortly before Passover, at a day of study organized by another organization, Beit Hillel, Halickman’s lecture was Zoom bombed.

During the first couple of minutes of the class, a few strangers joined in the session. Swastikas appeared on the source materials, and the strangers began ranting Nazi slogans. As soon as the problem began, Halickman’s technical staff — her 20-year-old son Dov and Hadar of the Beit Hillel staff — ended the entire session.

Dov Halickman consulted with Hadar and they started the session again, but now with a waiting room. Dov and Hadar could see who wanted to join the session and admitted only those whom they recognized. The new session proceeded without incident. Participants who joined a few minutes late might never know about the problem; some of the participants who had joined on time felt badly upset.

These assaults hit institutions in Israel and Toronto, but Sikorski notes that Michigan institutions also suffered attacks; in fact, all these incidents occurred in cyberspace, here and everywhere.

Then incidents leveled off. Sikorski explains why: “As the users became more sophisticated, they began using safeguards to protect their conferences.”

“At the same time the platforms, such as Zoom, built up their safeguards to become more effective. People took part in training sessions to learn how to use the safeguards effectively.”

However, the problem has returned. In Sikorski’s analysis: “Partly the perpetrators have become more sophisticated at looking for shared links and gaps in security systems. Also, agencies and individuals have begun to use these platforms for the first time, and they have to go through the same learning curve as the users who started earlier.”

Rabbis from several local synagogues report that they have followed guidelines for preventing Zoom bombing and have not experienced attacks, including Rabbi Shaya Katz of Young Israel of Oak Park, Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, of the Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism and Rabbi Robert Gamer of Congregation Beth Shalom. Gamer said, “This is certainly something none of us would have dreamed about a year ago.”

The ADL’s Normandin observes, “we have to guard against getting lax.” She adds “The best way to deal with Zoom bombing is to prevent it.”

If your meeting has been Zoom bombed, Normandin says, “report the incident to the ADL, which will share the information with a special task-force of the FBI. Even if you have not preserved the evidence, you should report the incident, because these organizations rely on data. You can report incidents at ADL.org

“If you have the presence of mind to do so, turn on record, or take a screenshot. The screenshot matters, especially if you get a good picture of the face of the Zoom bomber’s face.”

Sikorski agrees: “The individuals who do this usually cover their tracks well. However, if the screenshots reveal a face, then sometimes we can recognize known characters.”

Trolls and Racists

Authorities have identified two categories of perpetrators: “Some are trolls, just trolling for the fun of it. Others belong to hate groups, dedicated to vile racism, antisemitism, and bigotry.”

Sikorski observes that ” Local law enforcement, the hate crimes group of Attorney General Dana Nessel and the FBI have been taking these incidents seriously. They want reports of all such incidents, primarily because of the impact on those violated by Zoom bombing. The attacks have been virtual, not physical; but those who have been subjected to this type of speech feel hurt.

A Zoom session involves personal relationships. When an intruder trespasses into that intimate setting, it is upsetting enough; when it comes with hateful visual images and rhetoric, it becomes very upsetting.”

Zoom Safety Checklist (courtesy of the ADL)

Before Meeting:

  • Disable autosaving chats
  • Disable file transfer
  • Disable screen sharing for non-hosts
  • Disable remote control
  • Disable annotations
  • Use per-meeting ID, not personal ID
  • Disable “Join Before Host”
  • Enable “Waiting Room”

During Meeting:

  • Assign at least two co-hosts
  • Mute all participants
  • Lock the meeting, if all attendees are present

If you are Zoombombed:

  • Remove problematic users and disable their ability to rejoin when asked
  • Lock the meeting to prevent additional Zoom bombing

For information about how to perform all of these steps, and for other methods of keeping your videoconference safe, visit ADL’s Center for Technology and Society.