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New York Attorney General Looks Into Zoom’s Privacy Practices

Zoom, the videoconferencing app whose traffic has surged during the coronavirus pandemic, is under scrutiny by the office of New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, for its data privacy and security practices.

On Monday, the office sent Zoom a letter asking what, if any, new security measures the company has put in place to handle increased traffic on its network and to detect hackers, according to a copy reviewed by The New York Times.

While the letter referred to Zoom as “an essential and valuable communications platform,” it outlined several concerns, noting that the company had been slow to address security flaws such as vulnerabilities “that could enable malicious third parties to, among other things, gain surreptitious access to consumer webcams.”

Over the last few weeks, internet trolls have exploited a Zoom screen-sharing feature to hijack meetings and do things like interrupt educational sessions or post white supremacist messages to a webinar on anti-Semitism — a phenomenon called “Zoombombing.”

The New York attorney general’s office is “concerned that Zoom’s existing security practices might not be sufficient to adapt to the recent and sudden surge in both the volume and sensitivity of data being passed through its network,” the letter said. “While Zoom has remediated specific reported security vulnerabilities, we would like to understand whether Zoom has undertaken a broader review of its security practices.”

With millions of Americans required to shelter at home because of the coronavirus, Zoom video meetings have quickly become a mainstay of communication for companies, public schools and families. Zoom’s cloud-meetings app is currently the most popular free app for iPhones in the United States, according to Sensor Tower, a mobile app market research firm.

Even as the stock market has plummeted, shares of Zoom have more than doubled since the beginning of the year.

As Zoom’s popularity has grown, the app has scrambled to address a series of data privacy and security problems, a reactive approach that has led to complaints from some consumer, privacy and children’s groups.

The company updated its privacy policy on Sunday after users reported concerns, and on Monday, Eric S. Yuan, chief executive and founder of Zoom, posted a link on Twitter to a company blog item about the policy.

In a statement for this article, the company said it took “its users’ privacy, security and trust extremely seriously,” and had been “working around the clock to ensure that hospitals, universities, schools and other businesses across the world can stay connected and operational.”

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“We appreciate the New York attorney general’s engagement on these issues and are happy to provide her with the requested information,” the statement added.

Last week, after an article on the news site Motherboard reported that software inside the Zoom iPhone app was sending user data to Facebook, the company said it was removing the tracking software.

As many school districts adopted Zoom to allow teachers to host live lessons with students, some children’s privacy experts and parents said they were particularly concerned about how children’s personal details might be used. Some districts have prohibited educators from using Zoom as a distance-learning platform.

“There is so much we simply don’t know about Zoom’s privacy practices,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a nonprofit group in Boston.

In the letter, Ms. James’s office cited reports that Zoom had shared data with Facebook, and asked for further information on “the categories of data that Zoom collects, as well as the purposes and entities to whom Zoom provides consumer data.”

The office expressed concern that the app may be circumventing state requirements protecting student data. To help educators, the company recently expanded meeting limits on free accounts. The attorney general’s office called such efforts “laudable,” but also said the company appeared to be trying to offload consent requirements to schools.

The office requested a description of Zoom’s policy for obtaining and verifying consent in primary and secondary schools as well as a description of third parties who received data related to children.

Zoom has said its service for schools complies with federal laws on educational privacy and student privacy.

The letter also asked for details about any changes the company put in place after a security researcher, Jonathan Leitschuh, exposed a flaw allowing hackers to take over Zoom webcams. The letter noted that the company did not address problem until after the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research center, filed a complaint about Zoom with the Federal Trade Commission last year.

  • Updated March 24, 2020

    • How does coronavirus spread?

      It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • Is there a vaccine yet?

      No. The first testing in humans of an experimental vaccine began in mid-March. Such rapid development of a potential vaccine is unprecedented, but even if it is proved safe and effective, it probably will not be available for 12 to18 months.

    • What makes this outbreak so different?

      Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How do I get tested?

      If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.

    • What if somebody in my family gets sick?

      If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      Experts are divided on how much protection a regular surgical mask, or even a scarf, can provide for people who aren’t yet sick. The W.H.O. and C.D.C. say that unless you’re already sick, or caring for someone who is, wearing a face mask isn’t necessary. And stockpiling high-grade N95 masks will make it harder for nurses and other workers to access the resources they need. But researchers are also finding that there are more cases of asymptomatic transmission than were known early on in the pandemic. And a few experts say that masks could offer some protection in crowded places where it is not possible to stay 6 feet away from other people. Masks don’t replace hand-washing and social distancing.

    • Should I stock up on groceries?

      Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • Can I go to the park?

      Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.

    • Should I pull my money from the markets?

      That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.

    • What should I do with my 401(k)?

      Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”

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