Video Chat App Zoom Under Scrutiny for Privacy Concerns

Conor Cawley

The popular video chat app that has taken the coronavirus-stricken world by storm might not be as safe as previously thought, as Zoom is being criticized over privacy concerns within the app.

Zoom has seen a meteoric rise in usage over the last few weeks given the many shelter-in-place orders throughout the world. Subsequently, businesses and friendships alike now rely on the video chat technology to communicate effectively on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, the privacy settings of the popular video chat app leave a lot to be desired and one notable critic is calling them out.

New York Attorney General Sends Letter to Zoom on Privacy

On Monday, the office of the New York Attorney General, Letitia James, sent a letter to Zoom requesting information about how the company is improving and updating its privacy policy amidst the notable boom in usage. More specifically, the letter noted that the company needed to address security flaws “that could enable malicious third parties to, among other things, gain surreptitious access to consumer webcams.”

According to Zoom, the company has plans to provide all requested information to the general attorney. The company also said in a statement:

“Zoom takes its users' privacy, security, and trust extremely seriously. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are working around-the-clock to ensure that hospitals, universities, schools, and other businesses across the world can stay connected and operational.”

One of the primary concerns for Zoom is its increasing use in digital classrooms. The laws and regulations surrounding the online privacy of children are decidedly stringent, and the office specifically requested details on how the company is addressing these concerns.

Zoom's Meteoric Rise

If you haven't heard of Zoom yet, you must be living on a different planet. As soon as the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak became clear, video chat become a social necessity, and Zoom was the beneficiary of most of the attention.

“We have seen a large increase in the number of free users, meeting minutes, and new video use cases,” said Eric Yuan, CEO of Zoom in an investor call.

Downloads have skyrocketed, putting Zoom firmly at the top of both the Google Play Store and Apple App Store. While the company is hesitant to release any numbers, outside researchers have found that the company added 20 million mobile users in just the last few weeks. Whether or not these privacy concerns have affected those numbers remain to be seen.

Best Web Conferencing Alternatives

Truly, you don't have much to worry about when it comes to Zoom. The software is easily one of the best web conferencing services available today, and these privacy inquiries, while pressing, aren't out of the norm for a company seeing this unprecedented surge in usage. However, if you're still a bit uneasy, finding a video chat alternative is pretty easy given the array of web conferencing options on the market.

GoToMeetings — Best for Ease of Use

According to our research, GoToMeetings is one of the best web conferencing software you can find that isn't Zoom. The incredibly high quality audio and video make for smooth, seamless meetings, and interface is decidedly easy to use, so even beginners can figure it out without much hassle.

It's not nearly as advanced as Zoom in terms of the available features, like video sharing and poll-taking, but if you're looking for a solid, reliable software for your video chats, GoToMeeting is more than effective.

GoToMeeting
Best all round web conferencing solution
4.8
In Short

Pros:

  • Try GoToMeeting free for 14 days with a no-obligation trial
  • High quality audio and video
  • Very reliable and secure
  • Lower cost than competitors

Cons:

  • No free plan

LifeSize — Best for Interoperability

More aimed at businesses, LifeSize's video conferencing service is as robust as it is convenient. The software features some serious interoperability, working across all devices and operating systems and integrating with business platforms like Cisco, Skype for Business, Avaya, Polycom, Radvision, and Microsoft Lync.

One downfall that could be a serious dealbreaker for some, particularly non-business facing users, is that the chat functionality is a bit limited, with very few features beyond the simple ability to chat. Still, the high quality audio and impressive interoperability make it a great choice for businesses.

Lifesize
Best for interoperability
4.6
In Short

Pros:

  • 1080p video and HD audio
  • Interoperability across operating systems, mobile and desktop
  • Integrates with Cisco, Skype for Business, Avaya, Polycom, Radvision, and Microsoft Lync

Cons:

  • Unsophisticated chat function

Webex — Best for feature range

If you're looking for a video conferencing software that has more features than you can count, Webex is where you'll find them. This robust web conferencing provider allows users to poll attendees, annotate documents in meetings, and even facilitate break-out and follow-up meetings immediately after a conference.

Because of how robust Webex is, the software occasionally suffers bandwidth issues, and the price can be a bit high for the casual user. But if you need a lot of features for your video chats, look no further.

Webex
Best for feature range
4.5
In Short

Pros:

  • Feature-rich software
  • High quality audio and video
  • Easy setup

Cons:

  • Occasional bandwidth issues

Skype — Best for Microsoft Suite Users

Arguably one of the better known software on the list, Skype is a tried-and-true classic that works great. The audio and video aren't flawless and the number of participants is pretty low, so it's not great for businesses looking to conduct meetings.

However, if you're a Microsoft Suite user that's looking for a solution for your small team get-togethers, Skype could be the perfect Zoom alternative for you. Plus, unlike a lot of options, it's completely free, so that'll help with your budget.

Skype
Best for chatbots
3.5
In Short

Pros:

  • AI-powered chatbots

Cons:

  • Too few total users
  • Too few conference participants

Google Hangouts — Best for G Suite Compatibility

You can't go wrong with Google! As another free option on the list, Google Hangouts offers more than enough to manage smaller meetings and casual chats. The audio and video quality aren't pristine and connectivity can be an issue, but it is Google, so you know you're getting a solid service.

The real advantage of Google Hangouts is compatibility with G Suite. You can connect meetings through Gmail, get automatic updates to your Google Calendar, and generally keep everything in one place, a convenience that no one can argue with.

Google Hangouts
Best for G Suite compatibility
3.5
In Short

Pros:

  • Gmail and Google Calendar compatibility

Cons:

  • Spotty connectivity
  • Poor audio quality

How to Have a Secure Video Conference

Whether you're an experienced video chatter or a beginner to web conferencing, understanding how to have a secure online meeting is just as vital to company security as it was when you were in the office, whether you realize it or not.

“The lax atmosphere of the home environment can make people forget that work rules actually apply whether business is conducted at home or at the office,” said Silviu Stahie in a post for Bitdefender.

Luckily, there are a few ways you can make sure you are safe and secure when you're in video meetings with your coworkers.

  • Safeguard meeting credentials – A hacker gaining access to a private company meeting could be catastrophic to the business, so make sure meeting passwords and usernames are always protected.
  • Update your apps – Security patches happen regularly, but you'll need to update your video conferencing apps to have them put into effect, so keep everything up to date.
  • Watch what you share – It's all too easy to share your screen in a video call, so make sure your device is devoid of visible, sensitive information before you show everyone your screen.

Overall, the best way to practice good video conferencing security is the same as any type of online security: Be vigilant. Working from home can breed a certain level of apathy around this kind of thing, but keeping your wits about you and paying attention can make a serious difference when it comes to protecting your personal data and the sensitive information from your place of work.

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Conor is the Senior Writer for Tech.co. For the last four years, he’s written about everything from Kickstarter campaigns and budding startups to tech titans and innovative technologies. His extensive background in stand-up comedy made him the perfect person to host tech-centric events like Startup Night at SXSW and the Timmy Awards for Tech in Motion. You can email Conor at conor@tech.co.

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