Everything seemed to be going as expected for DePaul senior Natalie Robbins when she logged into Zoom for her political science seminar on Tuesday night. Like she had done in weeks prior, Robbins set up the Zoom session for her class, Politics and Cinema, acting as the host and facilitating the call for her professor, in order to circumvent any technology issues because her professor was unfamiliar with the Zoom platform.
But 30 minutes into the lecture, things went haywire. Robbins’ class was being Zoombombed — a new risk for digital learning that has cropped up in the weeks since schools have shifted online.
“We started getting these people that came in and basically started yelling profanity and cuss words,” said Robbins. “At first, it seemed that we could just end the meeting and start over, which was what we did.”
Kicking people off one at a time wasn’t foolproof to keep the class on track, Robbins explained. People kept streaming into the call faster than she and another student could keep up, completely derailing their class with shocking and disturbing behavior. Robbins and another student worked together to kick out outsiders as they came in. She estimated by the end of the onslaught, she kicked out “probably over 100 people.”
“What finally worked was the waiting room [feature],” Robbins said. “But it took a lot of disturbing images and language before that finally got worked out, so people were kind of upset.”
Daelen Kenney, a senior as well, was “distressed” by the intrusion. She found herself unsure of what to do because of the flood of people that “just kept pouring in.”
“They were, like, screaming at us and yelling stuff, like racial slurs,” Kenney said. “There was someone masturbating, and at one point, there was someone who seemed like they were Chromecasting the Zoom call onto their TV and videotaping it, so we were looking at a screen of all of us in someone’s house.”
“It got to the point where every time I heard the ding sound that someone had joined, I got so scared that I just muted my computer so I didn’t have to hear the class.”
James Block, who teaches Politics and Cinema, said that the violation was “really egregious… way, way, way over the top in every dimension.”
“I didn’t even know how to stop it, I didn’t know what to do,” Block said. “It was like being in a small boat and hitting seas where the waves are pounding over the side of the boat, which is what it felt like, and just trying to keep yourself afloat… we were brave as a group and just fought our way through it, but it was really unsettling.”
He explained that he had never hosted an online class session before, and was unfamiliar with the Zoom platform, so he had Robbins host the class on behalf of him.
“My problem is that I have no proficiency in technology, all my computers are old. My software, my operating systems, everything is old,” Block said. “So I’ve gotten the help of a student or two, but primarily to monitor this thing.”
Zoombombing, which takes its name from the platform that’s spiked in popularity since the start of stay-at-home orders that require many to work and learn from home, stands as a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities of online and remote learning.
The situation usually follows the same pattern. A meeting hosted over Zoom is fine for a moment before being overtaken by trolls wreaking havoc to varying degrees, usually involving distressing themes like racial slurs, pornography, and yelling or screaming. If the meeting link is posted publicly, without a password, it stands no chance. The best route is to end the meeting entirely.
Zoombombers, often students, confer in chat rooms and message boards like those on Discord and Reddit, PCMag found. There, they can swap meeting ID codes — their ticket into an unprotected Zoom call — and set the stage for harassment of teachers and classmates by strangers.
These intrusions are more than just a one-off issue: Joliet Central High School, as well as New Trier High School and an eighth grade class at Carleton Washburne School in Winnetka, were all Zoombombed within the past two weeks. And outside of an educational setting, attendees at a community policing meeting held by the Chicago Police Department over Zoom on Thursday found themselves facing a barrage of racial slurs and pornographic images.
Interim Provost Salma Ghanem warned faculty at DePaul of the potential for Zoombombing on March 30, the first day of Spring Quarter, providing them with tips to “maintain the privacy” of synchronous class sessions from “uninvited and potentially unwelcome ‘guests.’” The tips outline a series of security measures that professors — or hosts — can take, including setting a password, establishing a “waiting room” and not sharing the Zoom link publicly.
With schools — and educators — across the country having to face online classes for possibly the first time, there’s a steep learning curve to mitigating issues that might arise.
“I don’t do online courses,” Block said. “I don’t have a cell phone, I don’t do texting or Facebook or Instagram — I don’t do any of that stuff.”
Block, who has taught at DePaul since 1978 and is a professor emeritus in the Political Science department, said that he received information from DePaul about Zoom, but he didn’t read the memos because he didn’t think it was relevant.
“I mean, I don’t read any of this stuff. I’m in semi-retirement right now,” he said. “The great part of that is I don’t have to read any of the memos that I get… y’know, the ones that are for regular faculty.”
“A lot of stuff goes around — if it’s tech stuff, I generally stay out of it. That’s been my attitude for many years: when tech enhancements come along, I don’t pay attention because I don’t use them,” Block said. “I didn’t realize that the whole class could be turned upside down — it never ever occurred to me.”
Robbins said that as the host of the call — but not the professor — she wasn’t sure what to do.
“I wasn’t really sure what my role was as a student,” she said. “Was I supposed to end the Zoom call, even though it wasn’t my lecture?”
For future class sessions, the DePaul Technology Support Center has offered to provide assistance to the students of Politics and Cinema to host Zoom meetings, and Robbins has received “a really thoughtful response” from the DePaul Center for Teaching and Learning after she emailed them about the incident.
That said, such a jarring experience has left questions among students and faculty alike as to what more can be done.
“I’ve been thinking about it, and it made me very anxious at the time,” Kenney said. “But my thought was like… If I was in a class at Arts & Letters, and someone walks in and starts screaming racial slurs, or a sexual predator walks into our class, we’re going to call Public Safety — we’re going to take care of the situation.”
“DePaul is responsible for protecting their students, right?” Kenney added. “When there’s this foreign interference, you feel like you can’t share [in class], and you’re terrified that something bad is going to happen in 30 seconds and it’s all about anticipation.”
Kathryn Statz, DePaul’s Director of Gender Equity and Title IX Coordinator, said in an email that if a student can be clearly identified as perpetuating harassment, they would undergo a disciplinary hearing through the Dean of Students Office to “determine whether they violated university policy or the Student Code.”
While university policy states that using DePaul computing resources to cause or encourage harassment could result in “appropriate disciplinary measures,” including dismissal from the university, it is unclear if the policy extends to the digital environment of Zoom. Students who violate university policies could be referred to the authorities by the university if the incident violates local, state, or federal laws, according to DePaul’s Information Security Policy.
Even if Zoombombing doesn’t explicitly break university policy, it might still break the law: prosecutors and the FBI are both warning that the practice could lead to fines or imprisonment, according to the Verge. Particularly in instances of encouraging violence, hate crimes, or spreading pornographic imagery, Zoombombers could find themselves behind bars if caught.
Statz explained that because Zoombombing is often perpetrated by strangers, the Title IX Office “would be challenged in efforts to take the case further in terms of an investigation,” though they might “send outreach to students who experienced the conduct.”
Criminal charges aside, Zoombombing can inflict harm long after a meeting has been ended.
Robbins emphasized the importance of resources like DePaul’s University Counseling Services, especially for people who have been affected by Zoombombing. “That’s just as important as fixing the technological point — hacking is a bummer, of course, but the use of racial slurs takes it to a completely different level of being emotional and unacceptable.”
“It’s like, we can’t control people hacking,” Robbins said. “We can to a certain extent, but there are always people that might get into our calls, and I think it’s just important that we have a plan in place for if something does happen, and what measures we can put forth to prevent it from happening again.”
If you’ve been affected by Zoombombing or another sort of video call interference, the FBI recommends reporting the incident to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
Taking a moment to double-check your security settings before you host a Zoom call is the best way to prevent an intrusion, like Interim Provost Salma Ghanem recommends in this resource.And if you’ve been emotionally or psychologically affected by a Zoombombing incident, University Counseling Services is operating on a virtual basis to provide support.
Header image by Marissa Nelson, 14 East