Jeremy Kridel was a software developer before he became a rabbi, so he knew enough about tech security to realize that a COVID-19 celebration of Shabbat on Zoom entailed some risk.
When he convened the service March 27 with 20 or so participants, he noticed a blurry figure trying to join the meeting but fading in and out. But about 10 minutes into the service, the online congregation heard shouts of “Jews are scum! Sieg heil!” and other similar epithets.
The intruder came into focus long enough to lift his shirt and reveal a swastika tattoo emblazoned on his right pectoral muscle.
Kridel muted the uninvited guest, but the Zoom crasher managed to unmute himself. He was able to rant for another 15 seconds before Kridel could cut him off.
Zoom, founded in 2011, was designed as a user-friendly business chat platform designed to make meetings as easily accessible as possible.
Its exponential growth in the COVID-19 era seemed like a windfall at first—before it turned into a nightmare. Crashers are breaking in not only for anti-Semitic purposes. Meetings and classrooms have been disrupted by blasts from pornographic films and, in one case, a shouter interrupted a Massachusetts school class meeting with profanities, and then disclosed the teacher’s home address.
“Having had several direct encounters with open anti-Semitism, I was disappointed but not surprised,” Kridel says. “But many of our congregants were shocked. One woman, middle-aged, said she never expected it to happen to her.”
Kridel’s Machar congregation in Washington, DC, affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism, is not the only victim of Zoom-bombing (crashers infiltrating Zoom calls) with an anti-Semitic twist. The Anti-Defamation League’s website records 14 separate Zoom-bomb incidents involving anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish organizations, from Lexington, Massachusetts, to San Rafael, California. The actual number likely is far higher.
“We’re getting reports every day,” says Oren Segal, who heads the ADL’s Center on Extremism. “Extremists are trying to leverage not only this platform but this moment in time.”
In some ways, the confluence of COVID-19 and Zoom represents a perfect storm ripe for exploitation by haters always on the lookout for new ways to spread their vile message.
That incident plus interruption of a Massachusetts Jewish student meeting on anti-Semitism (involving display of the same swastika tattoo) drew a warning from the FBI’s Boston field office. The message urged victims to contact the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.
Based in San Jose, Zoom saw its growth skyrocket from 10 million daily free-and-paid meetings at the end of December last year to 200 million daily meetings in March.
Zoom’s CEO and founder, Eric Yuan, frankly admitted the company has been overwhelmed by the reports of intrusions. “We did not design the product with the foresight that, in a matter of weeks, every person in the world would suddenly be working, studying and socializing from home,” Yuan said in a statement on the company’s web site. “We now have a much broader set of users who are utilizing our product in a myriad of unexpected ways, presenting us with challenges we did not anticipate when the platform was conceived.”
Zoom said it had already changed a number of easy-access features, such as disabling the attendee-attention-tracker function that gave abusers the ability to randomly scan for meetings. The company also listed a number of ways for improving security for Zoom meetings, as did the ADL and FBI. Among them:
_ Minimize announcements of meetings on web sites and Facebook and refrain from disclosing conference ID numbers that give access to all.
_ In Zoom, change the screen-sharing option to “host only.”
_ Require a password or use the “waiting room” feature to control admittance.
_ Disable Zoom “join before host” function, and lock the meeting when all attendees are present.
“For many people, it’s just a matter of practicing better online hygiene,” says Segal of the ADL.