When the pandemic hit last year and everyone abruptly and all at once withdrew from their regularly scheduled existence, the popularity of certain online services exploded. The now-massively popular video conferencing tool Zoom was, arguably, the service that exploded onto the scene most spectacularly.
Zoom burst like a supernova onto the collective consciousness of humanity in the early days of the pandemic, and – despite a few major hiccups along the way – has been going strong ever since. What was more of a niche communication tool used primarily by distributed teams was suddenly being used by everyone – teachers, students, lawyers, musicians, politicians, news anchors, doctors, coaches, yoga instructors, pranksters, fraudsters – the whole lot. Basically, Zoom proved so accessible and easy to use that it essentially became the de facto pandemic communication tool of choice. The problem, however, was that Zoom also proved to be a mind-bogglingly unsecure platform. And that’s a major issue when basically everyone on the planet is using the service.
As Zoom surged onto the world stage, so did scrutiny into the security of the service itself. Turns out, Zoom harbored a rabble of vulnerabilities and a general pattern of imprudence that put user privacy at tremendous risk, and rather unnecessarily at that.
First of all, we mustn’t forget that the company falsely claimed that it provided end-to-end encryption for its video calls when, in fact, it actually didn’t. Beyond that, there was, of course, the controversial “attention tracking” feature that allowed meeting hosts to see if attendees had clicked off the Zoom interface during a meeting. Then there were the alarming data collection practices, Zoom’s iOS app sending analytics data to Facebook, a vulnerability that could allow an attacker to steal Windows users’ logins and passwords, one that could give an attacker root access to Mac users’ operating systems, a feature that exposed users’ LinkedIn profiles, and a major vulnerability that could have potentially given attackers access to Mac users’ webcams and microphones.
Not exactly trivial stuff we’re talking about here. Businesses and general users started dropping Zoom left and right, leaving the company with a bit of a problem on its hands. To the Zoom’s credit, however, it acted quickly to resolve these issues. Maybe it was because leadership really cared about user privacy, or maybe it was because the company’s entire existence was hanging in the balance. Either way, Zoom ended up getting itself together, making tremendous strides in patching vulnerabilities and beefing up the overall security of the platform.
But for you and me as expats, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the necessary precautions to protect our privacy when using Zoom, whether you’re meeting with clients or colleagues or you’re keeping in touch with family and friends back home.
How to protect your privacy on Zoom:
Use a virtual background
Make it look like you’re on the beach, in an office, a library, a cafe, a skyscraper, in the desert, on the moon…you can get creative if you don’t want others in your meeting to see what’s behind you in real life. Flip on a virtual background and voilà, no one will ever know you’re sitting at the pub watching the game. Of course, using the virtual background feature is also key for your privacy if you don’t want others peeping into your personal space.
Combine two-factor authentication with a strong password to protect your account
It’s online security in one of its most basic forms, but it’s something so many of us get wrong. Your password is your first line of defense against threats to your online privacy, but if your password is weak, you’re setting yourself up to get hacked. When you use a strong password for your Zoom account and combine it with two-factor authentication, then you’re ensuring your account is properly secured and safely out of the reach of hackers.
Protect your meetings with a password
Speaking of passwords, if you’re hosting a meeting, you should definitely protect it from unwanted guests. Password-protecting your meetings will help to eliminate the threat of Zoombombing because only those with whom you choose to share the meeting password will have access to your meeting.
Enable the “Waiting Room” feature
Even if someone you don’t want attending your meeting somehow gets a hold of your meeting password and tries to join, when you have the handy “Waiting Room” feature enabled you can prevent them from actually joining. This is because you’ll be able to approve or deny each and every participant attempting to join your meeting. Sure, this makes the whole process a bit less seamless, but it’s still a great way to add a level of privacy and security to your meetings.
Check your desktop and open tabs when sharing your screen
If you’re ever sharing your screen during a meeting, make sure you don’t have any tabs or apps or anything open on your desktop that you wouldn’t want anyone else seeing – especially things like online banking, personal communications, health information, or, err, anything else you may not want others to see on your desktop.
Only download Zoom from the company’s official website
If you try to download Zoom from a third-party website, then I hope you like malware, because that’s probably what you’re gonna get. You see, with Zoom’s popularity at an all-time high, cybercriminals are looking to get in on the action and cash in by tricking unsuspecting victims into downloading fake versions of the app that are loaded with malware. So, if you don’t want your device infected with malware and your sensitive data ending up in the hands of criminals, then make sure you only download the Zoom app from the official Zoom website.
Keep your Zoom app up to date
Hackers are constantly looking to exploit these vulnerabilities and security gaps for their own gain. When online services like Zoom update their apps, they’re not only squashing bugs and sprucing up the app to make it more user-friendly, they’re also patching security vulnerabilities. So if you keep your Zoom app up to date at all times, you know you’re getting the latest version of the app with the latest security patches in place.
Use a randomized meeting ID when conferencing with outsiders
This is a good option if you’re ever hosting a Zoom meeting that individuals other than your close, trusted associates may be attending. Instead of handing your personal meeting ID to strangers, why not use a randomly generated meeting ID instead? It couldn’t hurt and it’s a simple way to boost your privacy on the platform.
Lock your meeting
Once you’ve launched a meeting, you’ll also have the option of locking it to ensure no one else can join. This is a great way to prevent incidents of awkward or downright insidious Zoombombing. It’s also a great way to prevent others from potentially gaining unauthorized access and snooping on your meeting.
Disable your camera and microphone when joining a meeting
When you jump on a Zoom meeting, you probably won’t want your camera and microphone to automatically be activated. To avoid any chance of being caught in an unflattering or embarrassing situation upon joining a Zoom meeting, go ahead and make sure to have your camera and microphone disabled before joining.
Use a VPN
If you’re wondering “what is a VPN?” (or Virtual Private Network), it’s a tool that encrypts your data so you can browse the internet privately and securely. When you use a VPN to secure your internet connection when using Zoom, you’ll be able to keep hackers at bay, preventing them from snooping on your activity and potentially eavesdropping on your Zoom call. This is especially important for expats who often use public Wi-Fi.
The best VPN for the job and, the one I use the most as an expat, is ExpressVPN. It is a bit more expensive than a lot of the others, though, so if you’re looking for something a little lighter on the wallet (that still gets the job done), I’d suggest looking into NordVPN or Surfshark.
Well, this one should be obvious, but it’s one that way too many of us are still struggling with, apparently. Maybe we’ve gotten too accustomed to spending so much of our time at home that we just don’t feel the need to get dressed for work anymore, or maybe it’s because we just think it’s hilarious to Zoom sans pantaloons (it’s not). It doesn’t matter what the reason is, please, for the love of all that is sacred, wear your damn pants when you’re attending a Zoom meeting. Trust me, it’ll help you protect your privacy.
As an expat, there’s a good chance you’ll be using Zoom quite often. You’ll probably be doing a lot of video conferencing with clients and colleagues, and you’ll find that Zoom is a great tool for keeping in touch with your family and friends back home. Even though you can’t always meet up in person, Zoom makes it incredibly simple and straightforward to meet up virtually – with up to 99 others.
Despite its history of security issues, the company has made some considerable improvements in that regard recently, so it’s no longer exactly the security trap it was pre-pandemic. Even so, you’ll still need to take certain steps to make sure your privacy is sufficiently protected when using the platform.
I hope you can use the tips I shared in this post to help you protect your privacy on Zoom. I know that doing the things I listed above has helped me tremendously while using the platform as an expat, and I’m sharing them with you because I know they’ll be able to help you too. If you have any additional tips that you’d like to share that can help expats stay safe on Zoom, I’d love to see them in the comments below!
If you’re an expat I’d also recommend that you check out my article on expat scams, so you know what to look out for and how to avoid such scams.