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New Jersey Schools Work to Avoid Zoombombing Hacks

As video conferencing platforms like Zoom become the norm for hosting classes, some schools are becoming increasingly comfortable with them, especially as the rest of the school year is set to take place remotely.

by Gianluca D'Elia, Burlington County Times / May 7, 2020
Shutterstock/Ink Drop

(TNS) — As video conferencing platforms like Zoom become the norm for hosting classes online, Burlington County. N.J., schools are becoming increasingly comfortable with them, especially as the rest of the school year is set to take place remotely.

But the transition has also come with some unexpected challenges — around the nation, classes have been interrupted by "zoom bombings," in which hackers get into online classes, and often share inappropriate language or pornographic images with the virtual classroom.

Lumberton fell victim to one of those hacks recently. The township school district and police are investigating the April 28 incident, in which a hacker displayed racist words and pornographic images to a middle school class.

Superintendent Joe Langowski said that by Tuesday, the district transitioned to Google Hangouts for all video conferencing moving forward, but wished not to speak about Zoom further.

Sometimes, the issue of "zoom bombing" can be caused by Zoom meeting links being distributed publicly, whether on a website or social media, but the cause of the Lumberton incident is still being investigated.

The FBI is also investigating nationwide zoom bombings, USA Today reported earlier in April.

"As large numbers of people turn to video-teleconferencing (VTC) platforms to stay connected in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, reports of VTC hijacking (also called zoom-bombing) are emerging nationwide," the FBI Boston field office warned. "The FBI has received multiple reports of conferences being disrupted by pornographic and/or hate images and threatening language."

While navigating remote learning technology is new for many educators, there are some key safety features available for those using the platform.

Tabernacle is among the school districts continuing to Zoom, and Superintendent and Principal Shaun Banin outlined some of the district's safety measures Friday.

"We have it set up so there's a waiting room. By default, all education accounts have a pre-selection, so when someone signs up, the teacher has to let them in," Banin explained.

There's also an option in which the video chat host — usually the teacher, for class meetings — can prohibit other members of the chat from sharing their computer screen with the rest of the group, he said.

The host of a video conference also has a variety of controls, such as turning off other participants' videos or microphones, removing participants, and locking a meeting so no new participants can join it, according to Zoom's guide for school administrators.

Outside of the video, the host can also prohibit private chats between members of a Zoom group and limit who can and cannot use the direct messaging feature.

Westfield Friends' Head of School Margaret Haviland said the small Cinnaminson school plans to leave some room in its budget next school year to pay for future Zoom upgrades as it continues to update its security.

"We control at a high level what teachers can and can't do," she said. "Passwords are required to get in, and we don't publish our Zoom meetings publicly. All my teachers use the waiting room feature and only admit names of students they recognize."

Recently, Westfield held a town hall meeting for parents, for which the parents had to ask Haviland's assistant to send them the meeting link in an email.

"Right now everyone's trying to find the best way to interact with their students," Banin added. "You're going to have hiccups along the way, but if you're constantly doing what you think is best, that's the golden rule in education."

©2020 Burlington County Times, Willingboro, N.J. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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