As Kalamazoo and other local governments across the state push to hold meetings online instead of traditional in-person meetings, they’ve also learned of the dark side of Zoom meetings as “Zoombombers” have dropped in.
(TNS) — After a string of people gave offensive statements during a recent Kalamazoo City Commission meeting hosted on the Zoom platform, Mayor David Anderson asked the city’s attorney what the options were to move the meeting forward.
“If we’re gonna sit here as 100 people take advantage of the opportunity to anonymously spew some venom out there, I’m not gonna be comfortable with that,” Anderson said, as people with screen names including Harry Potter waited in a virtual line to comment.
The commission cut off comments at the first part of the meeting, but still had to deal with another round of disruptions later in the meeting, as a city staff member muted any that became inappropriate.
As Kalamazoo and other local governments across the state push to hold meetings online instead of traditional in-person meetings because of coronavirus, they’ve also learned of the dark side of Zoom meetings as “Zoom bombers” have dropped in to cause chaos.
The trolls, invited in to comment along with the rest of the public as required by Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, are spewing hate speech during the public meetings required for local municipalities to get work done.
Michigan is looking for a way to move public meetings forward without opening them up to a firestorm of comments from anyone, including anonymous and unverified Internet trolls. Meanwhile, police are warning pranksters that Zoom bombing can get you arrested.
On Wednesday, March 18, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued recommendations advising against gatherings, and soon after opened the door to allow municipalities to hold virtual meetings instead.
Less than two weeks later, Zoom bombers disrupted a Grosse Ile Township Board meeting during the public comment portion at the end of the session.
“No member of the public whom I could identify offered to comment, but two anonymous intruders essentially injected derogatory comments about people of Chinese ancestry," Supervisor Brian Loftus said. "I would not tolerate any such commentary in a public meeting were the speaker physically present, I attempted to silence them as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, not quickly enough.”
He could not control the “anonymous intrusions” and asked for a motion to adjourn, which the board quickly approved, Loftus said. All other business at the meeting had already been concluded before the adjournment, and officials advised anyone still listening they we would respond to any and all commentary provided via email or a phone call, he said.
During a virtual Kalamazoo City Commission meeting on March 31, Zoom bombers seemingly took turns with the virtual mic to offer comments, many laced with profanity, and some referenced killing people of certain races, and included racial slurs.
A city official muted each comment as quickly as possible once they became inappropriate, but not before the words were potentially heard on speakers in living rooms in Kalamazoo and beyond. City officials asked the people to stop and criticized them for hampering the ability of citizens to comment by derailing the process.
The next day, a video conference about Detroit water hosted on Zoom on April 1, was shut down after a “complete takeover” by trolls that injected pornographic images and racial slurs into the virtual meeting space, Jill Ryan, director of the group Freshwater Future said.
Organizers scrambled to remove meeting participants for a few minutes before closing the call and canceling the video conference. The call was organized by Michigan activists that have successfully pushed to restart water service to low income people with unpaid bills.
The incidents highlight some of the virtual meeting pitfalls that have to be solved if the government wants to continue to use online platforms for public input.
“Our communities have essential work that requires a public meeting and opportunity for public comment," Michigan Municipal League Director of Communications Matt Bach said in an email message He said the governor understands communities have “essential work” that requires public meetings and requires the opportunity for citizens to comment, referencing the order allows meetings to be held electronically instead of in-person, as normally required under the Open Meetings Act.
“Unfortunately, even during these difficult times some people put their own amusement above the public good," Bach said. “The First Amendment protects that speech even if it is distracting from local governments work for the greater good."
The city of Kalamazoo and other municipalities are giving input to the MML for talks the group is having with the Michigan Governor’s office about ways to address the troll issue while still allowing public input, Kalamazoo Deputy City Manager Jeff Chamberlain said.
The MML is working on the issue, Bach said.
“The Michigan Municipal League is aware that communities have encountered ‘Zoom bombers’ and we are hoping to work with state leaders to address the issue in a way that best meets the needs of the public and local governments attempting to conduct essential business," Bach said. He declined to give further specifics about the MML’s work on the issue.
The behavior, apparently a joke to the culprits, has also caught the attention of federal and state authorities.
They aren’t laughing.
“You think Zoom bombing is funny? Let’s see how funny it is after you get arrested,” Matthew Schneider, United States Attorney for Eastern Michigan said in a prepared statement. “If you interfere with a teleconference or public meeting in Michigan, you could have federal, state, or local law enforcement knocking at your door.”
Charges may include – to name a few – disrupting a public meeting, computer intrusion, using a computer to commit a crime, hate crimes, fraud, or transmitting threatening communications. All of these charges are punishable by fines and imprisonment, the statement said.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel warned consumers of potential hijacking and cybersecurity breaches after an MLive reporter contacted her office about the Detroit water conference on Zoom that was hijacked.
In Michigan, Zoom bombing could result in criminal charges under several statutes relating to Fraudulent Access to a Computer or Network (MCL 752.797) and/or Malicious Use of Electronics Communication (MCL 750.540), Nessel said.
The FBI has received multiple reports of teleconferences set up through Zoom being disrupted by pornographic and/or hate images and threatening language. Schools using the technology to conduct classroom exercises have also reported interruptions in video-teleconferencing sessions, according to the agency.
Andrew Birge, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Michigan, advised that anyone running a videoconferencing, be it a business, a law enforcement meeting, a classroom or video chatting with family, “you need to be aware that your video conference may not be secure and information you share may be compromised.”
“Be careful,” Birge said. "If you do get hacked, call us.”
Robert Stevenson, Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, asks people to report any incidents of hacking or any other type of fraud to a local, state or federal law enforcement agency.
“It is a shame that during a pandemic which is causing fear and anxiety across the globe that there are wrongdoers seeking to disrupt virtual environments which have become essential to communication, teleworking and online learning,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Steven M. D’Antuono said, urging people to practice good cyberhygiene. People can visit fbi.gov or ic3.gov to learn more about tips they can take to keep their devices secure, he said.
The FBI recommends taking the following steps to mitigate teleconference hijacking threats:
Do not make meetings or classrooms public. In Zoom, there are two options to make a meeting private: require a meeting password or use the waiting room feature and control the admittance of guests.
Do not share a link to a teleconference or classroom on an unrestricted publicly available social media post. Provide the link directly to specific people.
Manage screensharing options. In Zoom, change screensharing to “Host Only.”
Ensure users are using the updated version of remote access/meeting applications. In January 2020, Zoom updated its software. In the security update, the teleconference software provider added passwords by default for meetings and disabled the ability to randomly scan for meetings to join.
Ensure that your organization’s telework policy or guide addresses requirements for physical and information security.
The FBI asks victims of teleconference hijacking, or any cybercrime, to report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Despite the delays and offensive language, the disrupted city of Kalamazoo meeting achieved its purpose, to designate $2 million to help small businesses in a partnership with the United Way.
Chris Sargent, the president and CEO of the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region who attended the Kalamazoo virtual meeting, said it was offensive and unfortunate but not surprising to hear racist comments.
“I think what it does, though, creates an opportunity it’s out in the open. Nobody can hide from it. Nobody can be surprised from it. Now it’s important that we continue to work tirelessly to change that outcome, and to eliminate it from happening again in the future,” he said.
Kalamazoo City Commissioner Chris Praedel said he was angered by the despicable hatred spewed at the city’s public meeting.
“I feel horrible for the people who waited to speak about real topics that matter to them during this crisis and even worse for those who had to listen to the disparaging comments at home. I’m so grateful to those individuals who held on,” Praedel said.
He doesn’t want officials to be intimidated or deterred in serving the people of the community, Praedel said, and the commission has important work to do.
“I think it’s so important the community hear from us as leaders, especially young people. This is not who we are. This is not Kalamazoo. These anonymous trolls do not represent our shared values and it won’t be tolerated. It’s simply not in our DNA. I believe we will rise above this hate. We need the help of our community to serve as vocal allies and find ways to make it abundantly clear moving forward that hate has no home here. We need to all speak up when we hear and see it," Praedel said.
The Grand Rapids City Commission took a different route at its April 7 virtual meeting, by banning all public comments, which also kept troll comments out. However, city leaders likely violated the Michigan Open Meetings Act by not allowing public comment during its virtual public meeting Tuesday, April 7, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Jennifer Dukarski, deputy general counsel for the Michigan Press Association, said the governor has made it clear in her executive order that the general public must be able to continue to participate in government decision making.
“The closure of public comments goes against the spirit of the Open Meetings Act and is improper and appears to be a violation of the Act itself and the Governor’s Executive Order,” Dukarski said.
Disturbances also happen in traditional meetings, she said, but holding them in a virtual space just makes it easier for people to do.
“We’re going to have these situations crop up whether it’s on a virtual platform or in or real open a live meeting, and the best we can do is just be prepared to respond to it,” Dukarski said. “The the muting of that individual in the Kalamazoo example was absolutely appropriate. Just like in a public meeting trying to quiet them and escorting them out of the room would have also been an appropriate measure to take if they were screaming hate speech and causing that type of commotion.”
Governments should be careful to ensure their response is appropriate to the level of speech, she said, and not to allow it to become a way to silence critics or used to overreact to comments given, or to otherwise keep the public out of the process. She is hopeful officials can learn from the sudden shift to digital allowed under the governor’s temporary order.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to emerge from this COVID-19 world and be in a situation where we’re returned to a more normal style of public meeting, and we will just have learned some very good computer skills in the interim," Dukarski said.
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