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What You Should Know About Online Tools During the COVID-19 Crisis

Electronic Frontier Foundation | Lindsay Oliver |March 19, 2020

covid 19 online tools - What You Should Know About Online Tools During the COVID-19 CrisisA greater portion of the world’s work, organizing, and care-giving is moving onto digital platforms and tools that facilitate connection and productivity: video conferencing, messaging apps, healthcare and educational platforms, and more. It’s important to be aware of the ways these tools may impact your digital privacy and security during the COVID-19 crisis.

Here are a few things you should know in order to make informed decisions about what works best for you and your communities, and ways you can use security and privacy best practices to protect yourself and others.

Free Slacks

EFF has written a lot about Slack’s data retention issues when it comes to free versions of the software. With so many mutual aid networks and organizing groups coalescing on Slack to support our communities, it’s important that users are aware that the company retains their messages if they're using a free plan—and they can't automatically delete them. By default, Slack retains all the messages in a workspace or channel (including direct messages) for as long as the workspace exists.

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If you are using a paid workspace, you can change how many messages are retained in Slack’s databases by setting shorter retention periods. If you’re using the free version though, that option is not available to you. Additionally, free workspace users only have the ability to search through the most recent 10,000 messages. And while users can’t see messages sent prior to the 10,000 message mark, they are still available to Slack, law enforcement, and any third-party hackers through a data breach. Leaking or sharing of this data could prove catastrophic, especially for groups who are working to provide aid and support for our most at-risk communities.

Zoom Conferencing

The best way to stave off the effects of isolation is to maintain contact with friends, family, and coworkers. Zoom has quickly become a popular option to work and keep in touch with others in the midst of social distancing and shelter-in-place protocols. There are a few things to keep in mind when using Zoom, particularly in instances where users are relying on the conferencing tool for their studies, or for work-related activities.

Attendee Attention-Tracking

The host of a Zoom call has the capacity to monitor the activities of attendees while screen-sharing. This functionality is available in Zoom version 4.0 and higher. If attendees of a meeting do not have the Zoom video window in focus during a call where the host is screen-sharing, after 30 seconds the host can see indicators next to each participant’s name indicating that the Zoom window is not active.

Administrators and User Tracking

Zoom allows administrators to see detailed views on how, when, and where users are using Zoom, with detailed dashboards in real-time of user activity. Zoom also provides a ranking system of users based on total number of meeting minutes. If a user records any calls via Zoom, administrators can access the contents of that recorded call, including video, audio, transcript, and chat files, as well as access to sharing, analytics, and cloud management privileges.

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For any meeting that has occurred or is in-process, Zoom allows administrators to see the operating system, IP address, location data, and device information of each participant. This device information includes the type of machine (PC/Mac/Linux/mobile/etc), specs on the make/model of your peripheral audiovisual devices like cameras or speakers, and names for those devices (for example, the user-configurable names given to AirPods). Administrators also have the ability to join any call at any time on their organization’s instance of Zoom, without in-the-moment consent or warning for the attendees of the call.

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