Surge in Online Classroom and Videoconferencing Hijacking, also called Zoombombing

kid behind laptop

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation is sending out a warning to look out for hijackers trying to creep into online classrooms and video or teleconferencing meetings amid the coronavirus crisis. Worldwide, multiple schools and businesses have already reported strangers infiltrating and disrupting their “closed” sessions. Some are just pranksters, others foul-mouthed strangers. But it can go further than that, if cybercriminals start breaking in.

Surge in Videoconferencing Comes with its Own Risks

Many schools and businesses are trying novel ways to stay connected in this time of social distancing, school closures and work from home set-ups. Unfortunately for most people, videoconferencing and online collaboration tools are relatively new terrain. Many learn to use applications on the fly and often lack the knowledge to block unwanted “guests” or hijacking attempts.

There are several ways intruders can infiltrate an online meeting. First, some of the collaboration tools come with their own security and privacy risks. Second, there are several measures hosts and participants can take to better protect video-conferencing, but often don’t know or don’t realize. Like not sharing the link of a meeting on social media. Not allowing anyone to share their screen. Or doing a roll call to count the number of invited and actual participants.

Zoombombing is Getting Organized

There has been a surge of incidents of Zoombombing since the attention in the media. Outlets like the BBC and New York Times have picked up on the ‘trend’, which also means that more kids want to get involved in it. The number of places online where you can organize a Zoom raid has grown exponentially.

Zoom conference codes are shared in places like Discord, Reddit, and Twitter, with Discord being the most popular. Usually, teens are behind the Zoom raids. The raids are often recorded and later uploaded on YouTube or TikTok. YouTube does not seem to have an issue with these video’s, so lang as they don’t include content that is against the website’s policy. Most Zoombombing requests are made by teenagers who are looking to prank their disliked co-workers or teachers.

Multiple Schools Affected

Recently, two local schools have told the FBI about strangers crashing online courses. One Massachusetts-based school reported that “while a teacher was conducting an online class using Zoom, an unidentified individual dialed into the classroom. This individual yelled a profanity and then shouted the teacher’s home address in the middle of instruction”. A second Massachusetts-based school reported a Zoom meeting being accessed by an unidentified individual. In this incident, the individual was displaying swastika tattoos.

Elsewhere in the US, a Californian high school was about to hold its first Zoom-meeting when multiple unknown users joined the teleconference and started chanting the N-word, while close-up pornographic images took over the center screen. Likewise, an Arizona State University professor’s first Zoom-class went terribly wrong when one of the participants used a Zoom feature to display lewd images and videos.

The phenomenon of online hijacking does not only happen in the US. For example, just a couple of days ago in Norway, a school had to break-off an online lesson using the tool after a man managed to creep into the virtual classroom and exposed himself to a group of nine-year-olds. The school has since moved to a different communication platform.

Zoombombing Does Not only Happen on Zoom

The word “zoombombing” refers to an unwanted individual or individuals gate-crashing Zoom meetings or any other type of video conferencing, for that matter. This form of intrusion can theoretically happen on any other platform. It is just that Zoom happens to be one of the more popular and widely used tools, now that the coronavirus crisis is forcing many people to work and study from home.

The biggest concern is that people rush to these types of collaboration tools too quickly because of the circumstances we are in without taking the time to familiarize themselves with its features and settings. Also, videoconferencing is now being used at a different scale an in many new ways. This means the applications also need to adapt.

Since the raids have become more mainstream, organizers of the meetings are getting better at securing their channels. Zoom is also working hard at improving their security and privacy after all of the criticism they have had to endure over the past month.

Online Hijacking Prevention Strategies

Following a trolling incident, the University of California published some very practical tips to prevent zoombombing, as did Zoom in their blog of 20 March, 2020. These include:

  • Using the waiting room feature
  • Managing screen sharing
  • Requiring password login
  • Disabling file transfers
  • Familiarizing yourself with the different settings and features

Further, The FBI added the following mitigating steps:

  • Only provide direct links to specific people
  • Do not make meetings or classrooms public
  • Ensure users are using the latest version of remote access applications
  • Manage screen options
IT communication specialist
Sandra has many years of experience in the IT and tech sector as a communication specialist. She's also been co-director of a company specializing in IT, editorial services and communications project management. For she follows relevant cybercrime and online privacy developments.