Zoom is so last week — which, in the time of coronavirus, might as well be last year.
The videoconference tool that’s captured the nation’s attention as it socially distances and shelters in place has won legions of converts for its easy-to-use interface and fun backgrounds. It also happens to be a privacy nightmare. Thankfully, there are other options that cybersecurity and privacy experts say will get the job done — without the baggage.
And yes, Zoom has a lot of baggage. Let’s start with the fact that the company has misrepresented the security of its videoconferencing service. The Intercept reported today that, despite telling users that “Zoom is using an end to end encrypted connection,” the company does not in fact end-to-end encrypt calls on its platform.
“Currently, it is not possible to enable E2E encryption for Zoom video meetings,” a company spokesperson told the Intercept when pressed.
Then there’s the fact that Zoom lets your boss monitor if you’re paying attention while in meetings, and shares your data with third parties. All in all, despite the company’s recent protestations to the contrary, Zoom has long failed to put privacy first.
So where does that leave you?
This one may sound obvious, but it’s worth reiterating that FaceTime is better than Zoom.
“For personal use, I’d recommend FaceTime, as Apple has a great record on making user privacy a priority and things like end-to-end encryption are a plus too,” he wrote.
What pains me about Zoom being such sleazeballs when it comes to both security and privacy is just how unnecessary it is. They have good fundamental tech! But as the skeletons keep falling out of the closet, it’s clear that the organization is fundamentally corrupt.
— DHH (@dhh) March 31, 2020
You can use FaceTime on an iOS device or macOS device, and an audio-only option is available. Despite a well-publicized bug last year, in general this is a private and secure way to chat with friends and family.
“[Of] course,” added Wardle, “that’s limited to Apple devices though…”
Which brings us to Signal.
You may know Signal as the smartphone messaging app that journalists and hackers use, but the free and open-source software is much more than that. There’s a desktop version in addition to its Android and iOS versions, and the mobile versions do way more than just let you securely message. You can also make voice and video calls, and everything is end-to-end encrypted.
Wardle, for his part, is a big fan of Signal.
“It supports video calls,” he wrote, “and is trusted by the security community, and [is] open-source IIRC?”
Notably, though, you cannot videochat on the desktop version — a true disappointment as we remain sheltered in place. “Love Signal,” added Wardle, “but in some ways it isn’t super feature complete.”
Overall, if you’re looking for a secure and private way to videochat with friends, Signal is a strong choice.
The free and open-source software Jitsi Meet has a lot going for it.
For starters, it doesn’t require you to download anything first (looking at you, Zoom). Privacy settings allows you to password protect video calls, and a blur background feature means you can digitally obscure your messy apartment.
“If you want an alternative to Zoom: try Jitsi Meet,” wrote the organization. “It’s encrypted, open source, and you don’t need an account.”
While Jitsi does employ encryption, it’s important to note that calls on Jitsit are not end-to-end encrypted like on Signal or FaceTime.
“WebRTC does not (yet) provide a way of conducting multi-party conversations with end-to-end encryption,” explains the Jitsi GitHub page. “Unless you consistently compare DTLS fingerprints with your peers vocally, the same goes for one-to-one calls. As a result, your stream is encrypted on the network but decrypted on the machine that hosts the bridge when using Jitsi Meet.”
Dan Tentler, executive founder of the security company Phobos Group, cautioned that Jitsi Meet doesn’t exactly wow him.
“I’ve spoken to an alarming number of people who say they are ‘privacy engineers’ or ‘privacy people’ who do not know the first thing about security, and do not understand that without security you can’t have privacy,” he explained over email, “and having literally looked at [Jitsi] for 30 seconds, I’m categorizing them in this manner.”
Finding the right video-chatting tool in the time of coronavirus isn’t necessarily a straightforward task. It requires balancing privacy, accessibility, and usability. Not every service is going to have the mix you need, and not all your friends and family are going to be willing to try something unfamiliar.
If you don’t take the time to consider where privacy falls in your list of priorities, however, then your health won’t be the only thing at risk as you ride out the pandemic.