One business that has thrived during the lockdown in various parts of the world is video-conferencing, virtual meetings and virtual collaboration solutions. Many large corporations have already installed virtual meeting infrastructure across their branch offices and were quickly able to adapt to this form of doing business by adding more individual users logging in from different locations.
A large number of SMEs and individual businesses, however, had to search for affordable and easy-to-use solutions to establish face-to-face contact with their workers scattered in different locations. Educational institutions also had a requirement to conduct classes in the virtual environment to meet their teaching deadlines. Such users found that the Zoom communications platform was convenient and affordable. As a result, its business spurted from around 10 million users to 200 million.
Companies, which had competing products and were big names in the industry, felt their egos bruised by the phenomenal success of this relatively small company. They launched a well planned attack on Zoom and the fact that it was promoted by a Chinese entrepreneur. They tried to bring down its popularity partly to get some business themselves and partly to satisfy their hurt egos.
The campaign against Zoom revolves around security issues. One issue is that uninvited persons can log into running sessions where there is no password set for the meeting or where the password is weak and predictable. As the meeting password is not considered as important as bank account passwords or similar other access environments, users tended to set weak passwords. These intrusions were highlighted as “Zoom bombings” and the possibility of corporate espionage was stressed.
Secondly, data used during corporate meetings had to move between different users and to ensure that this moved without much latency, the company maintained servers in different countries, including China. Rivals highlighted this and showed the possibility of Chinese espionage.
A third complaint raised was that Zoom claimed to have “end-to-end encryption”, whereas it was theoretically only encryption from the sender’s computer to the receiver’s. It was quite like an “https” connection and did not extend to the processes within the sender’s and receiver’s systems at the application level. This was suggested as a deliberate misrepresentation. There was also an allegation that Zoom shared some data with Facebook without the knowledge of the user and that some log-in IDs and passwords were on sale on the dark web.
As a result of these allegations, a campaign was launched to show that Zoom video-conferencing solutions were unsafe. Media, which did not understand the depth of the problem, also painted a picture of Zoom being the only software where all security flaws were found and hence its use should be discontinued. Neither the media nor others presented any better alternative. Its Chinese ownership was also a reason for some to switch to other solutions.
It was unfortunate that the home ministry became a pawn in this game of one up-manship. As usual, a section of the media claimed that the home ministry had evaluated the Zoom application and was not in favour of its use from the security point of view. While the ministry’s concern about the use of Zoom for meetings of government officials was perhaps genuine, the unusual action of it coming up with a press release, including a set of “secure configuration guidelines” was strange. Though this notification was meant only for government departments, the media implied that it was a national security advisory. Normally, any such guidance should be the responsibility of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and there was no need for the home ministry to step into its shoes and come up with operating guidelines on a subject in which it has no direct knowledge or expertise.
By the time this notification was released, Zoom had already attended to most of the concerns. It changed the default settings of the meetings to a higher security level and left it to the choice of the user to downgrade the security features. It also provided an option to the user to avoid servers in specific countries such as China.
Zoom bombings were due to the user’s negligence. Instructions were released to set a strong password, use the waiting room facility and to lock the meeting if needed. This could avoid unauthorised entries into the meetings. Zoom also clarified that personal data sharing with Facebook occurred because its software development kit (SDK) for log-in authentication collected information beyond the permissions required and granted. It appears to be a deliberate violation of privacy by Facebook, though there could be some negligence on the part of Zoom too.
The controversy regarding end-to-end encryption was more of semantics than anything else. Security experts say that if the encryption is not done at the application level and decrypted only at the destination, it cannot be considered as “end-to-end”. It is possible that the marketing personnel at Zoom called their encryption “end-to-end encryption” without recognising the difference.
However, most messaging services, including popular email ones, use only transport-level encryption and not the real end-to-end encryption. Even banks in India may not be using real end-to-end security. Hence, singling out Zoom for such a mistake is unfair.
Before the home ministry jumped into the fray, it should have realised that the problem with Zoom was both of technical interpretations and user awareness. It was not an issue of fraudulent intention. The ministry was not capable of understanding the nuances of technology and should have refrained from giving the impression that it was giving a technical advisory on Zoom.
Criticising Zoom without criticising Facebook for misusing the consent shows prejudice. Perhaps this should be investigated as the Facebook log-in SDK of the type used by Zoom may also be in wide use in India by others. In all such cases, there could be a siphoning off of personal data beyond what has been consented to by the user. The home ministry has not revealed that email providers also use only VPN security and not end-to-end security. If so, it would have placed the issues observed in Zoom usage in the right perspective.
If Zoom had installed any malware like some Chinese applications do, then the home ministry would have had a reason to issue such advisories. But it did not consider TikTok and UC Browser type applications for a ban. This could be due to their ignorance or pressure from certain business lobbies. It is also to be recognised that Zoom has been promoted by a person of Chinese origin but is not a Chinese company. It is a US company and the promoter is perhaps now a US citizen settled there.
The ministry should also have realised that Zoom as a company is not like telecom equipment suppliers like Huawei or Chinese mobile companies. Some of these companies have allegedly preinstalled malicious applications to bring users under surveillance of the Chinese government. Even point of sale systems used for card authentication at shops and biometric devices used for Aadhaar authentication are being imported from China and the ministry should worry if these have any hidden backdoors.
The ministry appears not to have heard about Deepfake and Deepnude applications which threaten society and could create huge problems. If it was watching the web world, it would have moved to block such apps along with voice-changing apps, Blue Whale or other gaming apps which require urgent attention. It has also remained silent when larger security issues arose when Bitcoin exchanges were allowed to resume their operations, unmindful of their use in possible terror funding.
By not coming out with advisories in such cases and over-reacting to the Zoom controversy, the ministry appears to have been used by industry in a commercial war between companies. In comparison, MeitY has responded positively to the incident by trying to encourage an indigenous replacement for the Zoom software. It has announced a prize of Rs 1 crore for this.
—The writer is a cyber law and techno-legal information security consultant based in Bengaluru