Colgate Targeted by “Zoombombing”


Two Colgate Zoom meetings were targeted by what is now nationally known as “Zoombombing” since University instruction and programming switched to the online platform Zoom last week. Zoombombing occurs when individuals enter a Zoom call uninvited and begin using profanity or sharing inappropriate images to disrupt the call.

The first Zoombombing incident occurred April 1 during a Women’s Studies Brown Bag lecture featuring guest lecturer Taryn Jordan from Emory University on black feminist endurance and strength. During the question-and-answer portion near the end of the event, multiple unknown individuals joined the Zoom call with their cameras off, only identified with first names, according to attendee and senior Jenna Walter. As an attendee asked Jordan a question, the unknown individuals began speaking loudly, first calling the lecture a “snoozefest,” then yelling racial slurs at the speaker and even calling a participant of the event out by name and playing music. One of the individuals then shared their screen and began searching pornographic images, at which point one of the professors in the lecture first acknowledged the incident might be a hacking. Walter said the hack lasted about a minute before the lecture was shut down. 

After the Brown Bag ended, Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies Meika Loe said the incident was reported to Campus Safety and ITS and attendees began communicating and consoling each other. 

“It all happened so fast,” Loe said. “A few minutes later there were a bunch of us emailing in support of one another and condemning the event. These are traumatic experiences and we were concerned for the speaker and the audience members. We had 27 people in attendance, and I’m sure all of them were affected in some way by this hateful act.”

Though attendees were not immediately contacted following the event, Program Coordinator for the Center for Women’s Studies Odette Marie Rodrigues said Women’s Studies will be sending out a statement to their community.

“After [it ended,] I just cried… because it was so awful and I felt so sad, first of all, that [it had] happened and it was obviously disgusting and ridiculous and ignorant, but [also because] we didn’t get to resolve the Brown Bag at allit was just kind of stolen, the ending,” Women’s Studies lecture attendee and sophomore Caroline Sweeney said. “We had just put so much good energy into the universe in general and it just felt like it was ripped [away]. It was so horrible.”

The nature of what attendees witnessed at the women’s studies event last week shares many of the same characteristics of “Zoombombings” that have occurred around the country. Incidents similar to the lecture hijacking have happened at universities, businesses and personal calls and meetings, a New York Times article reports. 

 “Zoom raiders often employ shocking imagery, racial epithets and profanity to derail video conferences,” the article says. “Though a meeting organizer can remove a participant at any time, the perpetrators of these attacks can be hard to identify; there may be several in a single call, and they can appear to jump from one alias to another.”

The second incident occurred on April 6 during Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics Md. Didarul Hasan’s Intermediate Microeconomics class. About seven to 10 minutes into the class, an unknown individual began yelling, first-year Dale Dunning said. 

“It was something like ‘f-you n-words.’ I assume it wasn’t anyone in our class and someone hacked the code. Everyone was pretty shocked,” Dunning said.

Hasan said the individual yelled obscene language for about 15 to 20 seconds and then removed themself from the class. Hasan continued class as usual at that point and though he did not officially report the incident, he did bring it up in the department meeting the next day. He said he knew Zoombombings had been happening but was confused when it actually occurred during his class.

Associate Vice President for Campus Safety, Emergency Management and Environmental Health and Safety Daniel Gough said Campus Safety became aware of the first incident when the case was reported the following day. Campus Safety then opened an ongoing investigation in collaboration with ITS and “outside agencies” into the incident.

“While Campus Safety has not had a case involving the Zoom software platform before, we have conducted past cyber crimes investigations and are following the same procedures, including involving external agencies as appropriate,” Gough said. “Unfortunately, there has been a significant increase in Zoombombing as the video conferencing software is used much more widely during the COVID19 public health crisis.”

Chief Information Officer Niranjan Davray said ITS was alerted of the first incident of Zoombombing on April 1 and is working to mitigate threats to online spaces through a page on the Colgate website that includes a series of steps to prevent unwanted users from entering Zoom meetings and events. 

“Obviously, this kind of racist and malicious action is an affront to everything our university stands for, and our team in ITS is working to prevent further unwanted incursion into our virtual learning spaces,” Davray said.

Some of these precautions will prove difficult, though. Hasan explained that he has not been using a waiting room, a feature that allows the call’s host to control when participants join because his class size (27 students) is so large that the feature would prove highly time-consuming. Other precautions, like locking Zoom meetings with passwords, have proven ineffective at blocking out hackers in certain instances. 

According to the New York Times article, while these incidents were initially considered “pranks or trolling,” they are now being taken more seriously. Zoom raiders often correspond to find target calls via social media. 

“An analysis by The New York Times found 153 Instagram accounts, dozens of Twitter accounts and private chats, and several active message boards on Reddit and 4Chan where thousands of people had gathered to organize Zoom harassment campaigns, sharing meeting passwords and plans for sowing chaos in public and private meetings,” the authors write, noting that Reddit has since removed message boards pertaining to Zoombombing from their site. 

Inside Higher Ed reports that attackers often find targets by entering random numbers into the Zoom ID field that takes users to specific calls in what’s called “Zoom roulette,” what Sweeney assumed happened at the Women’s Studies lecture. Others believe the women’s studies lecture could have been particularly targeted for its content, given that they are “feminist-oriented and thus more likely to be targeted by haters,” according to Loe.

“It just seems kind of convenient that, of course, it happened in [the] Women’s Studies black feminism Brown Bag. The fact that it happened in that scenario seems targeted,” Walter said. 

Though similar events at other Universities such as Binghamton University have been perpetrated by non-students, both Walter and Sweeney said they had moments where they thought the perpetrators of the Women’s Studies Brown Bag could be Colgate students, referencing Colgate’s recent history of racial bias incidents on campus. 

“Especially now with technology, if it was easy for someone to slip a note under someone’s door or write on a whiteboard at school it’s going to be even easier now to discriminate with technology,” Sweeney said.

Davray said that despite the widespread hijacking issue, Zoom remains the University’s preferred platform for online instruction and meetings.

“These ‘Zoombombings’ are not unique to Colgate, as you have seen elsewhere, and such vulgar trolling can be found on most any platform with public access. We hope that by adhering to our new guidance our community can prevent further disruptions,” Davray said.

Loe said she places some of the responsibility on Zoom for these sorts of incidents.

“Overall, I think Zoom has been a godsend for being able to stay connected in this time of challenge and isolation. That said, we are all realizing it is not a secure platform, and so while many educational institutions have invested in this technology, they also run the risk of security glitches and increased discriminatory incidents and harassment,” Loe said. This is not something schools want to promote! The onus is partly on Zoom, but mostly on those who use this time of insecurity to spread hate and fear.”

Zoom’s Founder and CEO Eric Yuan issued a statement on their website on April 1.

“We recognize that we have fallen short of the community’s – and our own – privacy and security expectations. For that, I am deeply sorry, and I want to share what we are doing about it,” Yuan said in the statement. 

Additionally, the company released an article outlining how users can reduce the threat of hijacking, such as managing settings for screen sharing and participants. 

“I feel like it’s almost a trial run, like we right now are a trial run because [Zoom] has never been used in this way before. Every teacher has to learn this platform and it’s not meant to be used to this extent. There are so many flaws,” Sweeney said.

The FBI also issued a statement on March 30 that warns of the issue, providing similar guidance to Zoom’s on how to reduce the threat and encouraging victims of teleconferencing hijacking and other cyber-crime to report it to their Internet Crime Complaint Center and targeted threats to their tips page

Despite national attention, Sweeney said she was surprised classmates didn’t know about Zoombombing or that it had happened at Colgate. Walter echoed this and said she wished she thought to record the incident.

“I wish I had had enough time to pick up my phone and record it so I could [show people] what happened, but it was so quick and I was just looking at it in awe,” Walter said.

According to Davray, ITS published a page on the University website with detailed information and instructions on how users can prevent Zoombombing. The resource includes step-by-step instructions on how to use primary and advanced methods security on Zoom, as well as meeting and classroom management tools to respond to disruptive users during meetings on the platform.