Zoom Bombing Poses Challenge for Government Meetings

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As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the country, city and county officials throughout the United States are grappling with how to conduct public meetings without getting “Zoom Bombed” with pornography, profanity or racial and homophobic slurs. 

Since early March when “safe distancing” and “stay at home” guidelines forced local governments to close offices and meeting rooms, many have turned to livestreaming with the Zoom application to conduct public meetings which are required by law. 

Hackers have been able to disrupt Zoom meetings with what is called “bombing,” cutting in with obscene images or unwanted comments. 

Safety Harbor held its first virtual City Commission meeting this week via Zoom but did it without live video and by offering to take written comments to be read aloud. City residents could also call in with comments to be read or could use the raise your hand function.  There were no public comments offered. 

As for Zoom bombing, Safety Harbor City Manager Matt Spoor says, “We have Zoom under control and can quickly disable individuals.”  

“The plan for the next meeting is the same as the last one, people have multiple ways to provide (comments) including mail, email, calling in or participating on the Zoom app,” he said. 

Spoor agrees that there needs to be a way for the public to see what the City Commision is doing so Safety Harbor is working with Clearwater officials to see if they can broadcast the next meeting on their public access channel where residents could watch the Zoom meeting. 

“Each municipality has their own attorney who advises them on the laws as they are changing,” he notes. “Zoom wasn’t permissible as recently as last month for a public City Commission meeting.”  

So far, Safety Harbor has avoided the kind of livestreaming incidents that have happened in places like Laguna Beach, Calif., where a city council meeting was hacked with a live pornographic display, or the Kalamazoo, Mich., city commission meeting that was disrupted by racial slurs and profanity. 

Similar incidents have been reported from a library board meeting in East Lansing, Mich., to a city commission meeting in Camp Hill, Pa.   

The inappropriate attacks often occur when the meeting is open to public comments such as a streaming city commission meeting in Yolo County, CA., where graphic pornographic images began appearing on the screen during a public discussion on upcoming events. 

There are other problems in this livestreaming process, including inadequate technology that can be confusing to the public.  Also, it can be confusing to elected or appointed officials who at times struggle with discussing issues when they are not face-to-face. Some struggle with the mute function, or getting disconnected, or taking turns talking. 

Some places are considering dropping public comments, but states that have Open Meeting laws like Florida’s Sunshine law require governing bodies to be open to public comments. Also, journalists have raised questions about the potential to cutoff their access during meetings. 

Zoom now requires  a password to join a meeting, and new participants can be kept in a virtual waiting room until the host lets them in. Hosts can also turn off screen-sharing to block participants from posting inappropriate content. But people who are determined to harass the meetings have found ways to hack in. 

Walt spent 35 years as a reporter, feature writer. TV critic and columnist for The Tampa Tribune. Prior to that he worked in the public relations office at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and as a reporter for The Greenville (SC) News. He and his wife, Debbie, have lived in Safety Harbor for 10 years. He also taught media writing courses at the University of Tampa. Since moving here, he has been active with the Safety Harbor Art and Music Center, hosting a monthly storytelling night.