Zoom CEO Tells NPR He Never Thought 'Seriously' About Online Harassment Until Now

Apr 8, 2020
Originally published on April 8, 2020 8:47 pm

Updated at 3:44 p.m. ET

The CEO and founder of the newly popular video conferencing service Zoom says he'll make his product harder to use, if it improves safety and security.

Zoom has taken off during the coronavirus pandemic thanks to how easy it is to join a virtual meeting on the platform by clicking on a single link.

But now Eric Yuan says, "When it comes to a conflict between usability and privacy and security, privacy and security [are] more important – even at the cost of multiple clicks."

Yuan spoke with NPR All Things Considered co-host Ari Shapiro, who asked whether the Zoom CEO would prioritize security after a series of missteps.

"If you asked me this question one year ago, I would hesitate to say yes. But now, absolutely yes," Yuan answered. "We're going to transform our business to a privacy-and-security-first mentality."

On Wednesday, Yuan announced the formation of a security-focused council and advisory board at the company. He also has hired Alex Stamos, who was Facebook's chief security officer during the 2016 presidential election, when Russia and others used that platform to spread disinformation. Stamos will serve as an outside security adviser to Zoom.

With people stuck at home over the past few weeks, Zoom has become the go-to platform for business meetings, education and even weddings and funerals. More than 200 million people participated in Zoom meetings daily in March.

But Zoom has also become a venue for online harassment. Trolls have hijacked meetings with racist and pornographic content in attacks known as "Zoombombings." The incidents have prompted the FBI to warn schools about using Zoom. Law enforcement agencies have pledged to prosecute Zoombombers.

Several large school districts, companies and governments have banned the platform entirely. Google recently banned its employees from using Zoom's software on their work computers because it doesn't meet security standards, a Google spokesperson said Wednesday.

Zoom is also facing criticism, including from Congress, for both security flaws and wrongly claiming that users' communications are encrypted from end to end. Zoom has retracted that claim and says it fixed the flaws. It is halting work on new features for 90 days to focus on privacy and security.

Yuan now says he underestimated the threat of harassment – a hallmark of so many online platforms – on Zoom. "I never thought about this seriously," he said.

Zoom was designed as software for business meetings. Yuan said his company was accustomed to working with clients' IT departments and was caught off guard by an influx of new users who were not as savvy about digital security.

"We needed to sort of play an IT role" for new users, he said. The company recently changed software settings so that, for example, meetings now require passwords by default.

Yuan said Zoom is working with the FBI to track down Zoombombers, saying the company "shared the same goals" as law enforcement.

"Hijacking other's meetings or classrooms – this is online crime," Yuan said. "We are very excited to know the FBI is involved. Actually, this is great."

Editor's note: Zoom is among NPR's sponsors.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Zoom is trying to regain users' trust. Over the last few weeks, the video conferencing service became the go-to platform for business meetings, education, even weddings and funerals. Then hate groups started to weaponize the platform, bombarding people with racist and pornographic content. The FBI warned about Zoombombing. Big school districts started to leave the platform. And now Zoom is scrambling to do damage control. We should mention that the company is a financial supporter of NPR. Zoom's founder and CEO, Eric Yuan, joins us now.

Welcome.

ERIC YUAN: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: You know, so many tech platforms have dealt with trolls, racists, neo-Nazis, pornography - I could list them all, all the big ones. Shouldn't you have anticipated this?

YUAN: I never thought about this seriously. And occasionally, we had that over the past several years. And we have a team that we work together with the local, you know, law enforcement and the FBI whenever someone reported that. But this time, just for the first week, there was too many. And it is totally unexpected.

SHAPIRO: Part of Zoom's appeal has been that it is so easy to use. You don't have to download specific software. You don't have to have passwords or jump through hoops. Does that ease of access which made it so appealing to so many also make the platform more vulnerable to these attacks?

YUAN: Yes, that's why. Normally, you know, before this crisis, this service was used by business meetings. Meeting ID is unique, really hard to guess. For now, a lot of end users are using that now. Quite often, they might share the meeting ID to their social media. Without a password, for sure, you know, others can easily hack into that.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about your relationship with law enforcement. Did you know that the FBI was going to issue a warning calling out your company by name?

YUAN: I would say this - FBI can help. This is online crime.

SHAPIRO: It is online crime, yeah.

YUAN: Yeah. We're very excited to know FBI involved. Actually, this is great.

SHAPIRO: As you know, a lot of people have said they're not going to use Zoom anymore. You've lost their trust. Entire school districts have banned the platform. Major technology firms are saying they just no longer trust Zoom. What is your message to them?

YUAN: We have lots of users. We have very large user base. You know, take New York state - the public school, for example. You know, our team's still working together with them. I think we have more users, more companies, you know, who are using Zoom now.

SHAPIRO: I have to say, I sort of expected you to say we're going to do whatever we need to to win back their trust, but it sounds like instead you're saying we're getting so many more customers all the time that we can afford to lose a few.

YUAN: No. No, that's not what I mean. I'm so sorry. One of my point is for any users who lost the trust, we do all we can to win their trust back. That is a given. But in addition to that, we also have a lot of users. We are working together with them for many, many years. They know actually, you know, our company has good intention. For those who are going to not use Zoom anymore, we double down our effort. That's why we freeze everything. Next is 90 days of privacy, no feature, right? Just focus on privacy, security.

SHAPIRO: You're saying over the next 90 days, you're going to put these new features in place that will increase privacy.

YUAN: Yeah. No features, just privacy, security. We want to win all of those users back.

SHAPIRO: So what would you tell people who think Zoom is so accessible and easy to use but might be resistant to use the kind of password protections that you're talking about? Given that you've built your brand on the low barrier to entry, do you think that barrier to entry now needs to be a little bit higher to keep people safer?

YUAN: That's good question. You are so right. And when it comes to a conflict between usability and privacy and security, privacy and security is more important. Even you take two steps, three steps, I think we should do that.

SHAPIRO: And for you, as the founder of this company, is that a huge shift in the way you conceive of this platform, that if it takes two or three steps to enter, it's OK as long as it makes it safer, even if that might drive some people away because it's inconvenient?

YUAN: If you asked me this question one year ago, I would hesitate to say yes. For now, (unintelligible) yes. I think we want to do all we can to make sure people feel safe to use our platform and even at a cost of multiple clicks. Because whenever there's a conflict, there is no perfect, you know, scenario. You've got to sacrifice something. From our perspective, welcome to transform our business to privacy and security first.

SHAPIRO: Eric Yuan is the founder and CEO of the video meeting platform Zoom.

Thank you for your time today.

YUAN: Thank you for making it, really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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