Coronavirus crisis: Zoom meetings prove problematic for some local Maine governments

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With town and city governments shifting to hosting online meetings during the coronavirus pandemic, it was probably inevitable that something would go awry.

Recently, in Falmouth and Bath, it did.

A March 27 Falmouth Town Council meeting via the Zoom videoconferencing service “ended abruptly,” according to the town website, “due to the inappropriate and lewd behavior of one individual whose actions were viewed by several of the meeting participants.”

Falmouth Town Hall. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

On April 1, a Zoom meeting of the Bath Town Council also ended abruptly when the meeting was interrupted by pornographic images and profane language.

Falmouth Police Chief John Kilbride said he participated in the Zoom meeting but did not see the inappropriate behavior, because his screen only displayed the councilor who was speaking at the time. He said that according to Town Manager Nathan Poore there was an individual conducting a “lewd sexual act.”

“Zoom is something new to us, and there are vulnerabilities,” Kilbride said. “I think this is an educational component to put in mechanisms to stop that.”

Poore was not available for comment.

Kilbride said he has a detective trying to get video evidence from Zoom, to identify the individual and prosecute them in some capacity. He said he’s not sure if the person is a Falmouth resident.

Episodes like this are known as “Zoom bombing” – essentially dropping into a meeting and disrupting it. Kilbride said it is something police are hearing about across the country.

“Law enforcement is gearing up,” he said. “It’s something different we have to address. We’ll figure it out.”

Falmouth’s agenda called for councilors to discuss issuing a proclamation declaring a local civil emergency. The council declined to do so at the meeting, which rendered moot the next agenda item, an extension of the proclamation.

The council concluded with a discussion on other actions that could help stop the spread of the virus. This included the town encouraging residents to stay at home, and having a stay-at-home order ready should the council decide it was needed.

The meetings in Falmouth and Bath both took a more laissez-faire approach than Portland has taken. In Portland, members of the public may attend City Council meetings and workshops virtually, but are automatically muted and their video is blocked. Residents are only unmuted when they ask to participate in a public comment or public hearing section on an agenda item.

The FBI has issued a warning advising people of the potential for Zoom bombing. The agency advised making all online meetings private to keep unwanted attendees from participating.

Zoom has also tightened its security. It recently patched a vulnerability in the app that allowed hackers to gain control of users’ video cameras; it now includes password protection, and has implemented virtual “waiting rooms” that allow hosts to screen and selectively admit participants.

Experts also recommend using Zoom on a mobile device – an iPad or smartphone – rather than a desktop or laptop computer, because mobile apps are limited in how much they interact with other apps and files on a device.

10 ways to secure Zoom

1 — Use a unique meeting ID. Look for the Meeting ID options and choose “Generate Automatically.”

2 — Require a meeting password.

3 — Create a Waiting Room to screen participants.

4 — Make sure your settings indicate that only people allowed to share their screens are hosts.

5 — Create an invite-only meeting and make participants sign in using the same email address you used to invite them.

6 — Lock a meeting once it starts. Click “Manage Participants” at the bottom of the screen, choose More > Lock Meeting.

7 — Kick out offenders, or put them on hold. Hover over their name and choose “Remove.”

8 — Disable someone’s camera via the Participants panel.

9 — Prevent animated GIFs and other files in Chat.

10 — Disable private chat. Open Settings in the Zoom web app, on the left side go to Personal > Settings, click in Meeting (Basic) and scroll until you see Private chat. If the button is gray it’s disabled.