Zoom won't encrypt free calls so it can work with cops

CEO Eric Yuan said in a call with analysts that free users will not receive end-to-end encryption so the company can work with the FBI in the future.

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Amid historic levels of vocal distrust in law enforcement, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan has decided to take the company along the opposite route. During a conference call with analysts Tuesday, Yuan said the company will keep video calls unencrypted for free users just in case law enforcement needs the calls as evidence in the future.

“Free users for sure we don’t want to give that because we also want to work together with FBI, with local law enforcement in case some people use Zoom for a bad purpose,” Yuan reportedly said on the conference call.

The offhand statement came amid discussion of the company’s continued success during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though Zoom isn’t hitting the massive 300 million participants-per-day numbers reported in April, the company expects to rack up nearly $1.8 billion in sales this fiscal year — far and away the most it’s ever made.

Conversations around Zoom’s many privacy concerns, which were once the subject of intense controversy, have lost some of their steam as the world turns its attention to more pressing matters, such as the murder of George Floyd and the continuing pandemic. Yuan’s statement sets the company apart from other tech giants like Apple, which has continually refused to leave special access for law enforcement.

This would never be a good look for Zoom, but Yuan’s statement feels particularly egregious during ongoing protests against police brutality. It’s also very revealing about the company’s vision for encryption: not to keep users safe but rather as a marketing ploy to pull in more sales.

Creating a narrative — Zoom’s initial response to the drama surrounding its slack security practices was a show of force. The company pushed forward a narrative of swift change rippling through its ranks: its users' security was the top focus. That response included everything from allowing users to stop routing calls through China to creating a new security panel.

Zoom has time and time again promised its users increased security in the form of end-to-end encryption.

End-to-end only for some — Yuan’s latest statements show a different side of Zoom’s security strategy. Yes, the company is working on end-to-end encryption for the platform, a measure that’s been called for by many since the software’s rise to fame.

But that security will only be available to paying customers. That’s an obvious business ploy to pull more free customers over to the paid subscription tier. When end-to-end security is a perk rather than a standard, we’re no longer talking about care for user safety — we’re talking about a marketing ploy.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Zoom leveraging security as a perk for paid customers; the ability to choose which countries your calls are routed through, for example, is only for subscribers.

This is, however, is the first time we’ve seen such a stark view of how the company thinks of privacy. Zoom would rather leave free users unprotected than deal with pressure from law enforcement down the line. Yuan’s drawn a distinct line in the sand here: Zoom will only protect you if you fork up some cash. Something tells me that’s not going to be a very effective way to draw in new customers.