Security Concerns Prompt Berkeley Unified to Suspend Use of Zoom for Classes

With so many schools closed, the Zoom video meeting app has become wildly popular among educators, but it's now under scrutiny for security and privacy issues. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Tuesday was Berkeley High School photography teacher Gabriel Berent’s first foray into teaching via Zoom. It was uncomfortable from the start — the grid of faces in front of him reminded him of "The Brady Bunch," and as the number of students on his screen passed 30, then 40, he struggled to make out their expressions and feel connected.

While he checked in with some — “How are you doing? How many of you are stressed?” — others rolled in late, their screen names popping up in a waiting area pending his approval to join the class.

Among names he recognized, Berent spotted racist slurs and vulgarities. It was disconcerting, but he did his best to weed out the interlopers while keeping up a dialogue with the class.

“I was trying to remind them that photography is really suited for this experience — you get to document your life,” he said. “Trying to let them know we're in this together, and we're gonna get through this.”

Not long after that, a naked middle-aged man appeared on screen among the students, spewing a nonsensical string of curses in Spanish.

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“He was just kind of running around and screaming,” said Emily Beckett, a Berkeley High School junior. The quality was poor enough to obscure details, and it may have been a pre-recorded video, she said.

“But you could definitely obviously tell that this person was naked, and in a very kind of broken down, kind of beat up room, almost like a basement,” Beckett said.

Within seconds Berent kicked him out. A few minutes later, he was back.

It was only day two of the Berkeley Unified School District's Distance Learning Plan roll out, and by evening administrators had suspended live video instruction citywide.

Around the country, fear over organized “Zoombombing” campaigns have prompted school leaders to drop Zoom, while others have switched to alternative platforms.

School meeting disruptions and reports of racist and pornographic imagery being shown to young children led the FBI to warn schools about using Zoom, and law enforcement agencies have said they'll take on Zoombombers.

In response to mounting scrutiny, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan on Wednesday announced the formation of a security-focused council and advisory board at the company. In an interview with Ari Shapiro of NPR’s "All Things Considered," Yuan said missteps and criticism had prompted the company to focus on security.

"We're going to transform our business to a privacy-and-security-first mentality," he said.

Brent Stephens, superintendent of Berkeley Unified School District, said the decision to shut down Zoom classes was black and white.

“The severity of the behavior and the risk that he poses to students’ well-being really forced my hand,” he said.

After all, the Zoombomber could have targeted an elementary school class.

Stephens said he hopes the hiatus lasts no more than a few days. During that time, school officials will assess their safety protocols, consider alternative platforms and retool educator training on distance learning.

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The district is already requiring teachers to complete Zoom security training, and Berkeley High’s Berent completed it.

“I followed the district's protocol,” he said. "But the reality is the human element of mistake.”

Administrators suspect the meeting ID and password had likely been shared, maybe even posted online, and Berent believes while juggling his dialogue with students and managing the waiting room, he mistakenly let in a Zoombomber whose innocuous screen name he thought was a student’s: Josh.

Going forward, Stephens said, the district may require all students to use full names and student ID numbers to gain access to a class meeting, and require teachers to implement a time-consuming student authentication system.

Stephens acknowledged it’s a complicated endeavor and said he hopes to draw from best practices in other districts.

He struck a determined tone, but the crisis is clearly wearing on him.

“On day two of our district plan, it's a little discouraging to have run into an issue that’s just this serious,” he said.

Meanwhile, Berent said he spent hours in shock after the traumatic Zoom experience.

“I couldn’t sleep last night,” he said. “It felt very violating. I feel terrible as a teacher, like I let the parents down by not creating a safe space or letting this happen.”

Berent emailed parents and students about the incident and apologized profusely.

Student Emily Beckett's mother, Teri, said she reached out to Berent immediately to reassure him.

“It wasn't his fault,” she said. “It was not the end of the world. We're not particularly sensitive over here.”

She’s more concerned about her daughter losing further instruction time.

“Even a couple days' pause in 11th grade is rough because they're taking in so much," she said. “Hopefully, they will get it back up and running very quickly.”

Emily wants that, too, but she said even when naked men aren’t dropping into her classes, disruptive students could easily hijack Zoom meetings. If things start back up again, she’d like to see teachers stick to smaller groups and keep students on mute until it’s their turn to talk.

Even Berent is sorry to see Zoom go. He knows his own young children, whose Berkeley Elementary teachers were also using the platform, will miss seeing their classmates and teachers. But ultimately, he's glad the district suspended it.

“I'm saddened for the kids that don't get to connect, for the other teachers out there — yes, we’re mourning that loss,” he said. "But also, it's far worse to be violated by people jumping into that safe space that you are trying to create.”

Berkeley police are looking into the case.

NPR contributed to this report.