Zoom's attention-tracking feature is ripe for misuse

As more of us turn to Zoom for remote conferencing amid the COVID-19 outbreak, we need to be vigilant about the company's data collection and privacy policies.

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As COVID-19 grips the world, the deadly virus is also unmistakably changing the landscape of daily communication in our workplaces and classrooms. People are turning to Microsoft, Google, and particularly Zoom to conduct remote conferencing as public health officials encourage self-quarantining to limit exposure and transmission.

But while our reliance on these remote video conferencing tools increases, so should our vigilance and awareness about their data collection and privacy policies. Of note, Zoom's attendee attention-tracking tool and its privacy policies make the tool ripe for exploitation.

Breathing down your neck — With bosses increasingly requiring their workers to turn to remote conferencing, Zoom gives administrators full power to track attendees' attention with an indicator that points out when a participant doesn't have the app "in focus" for more than 30 seconds. Privacy organizations like EPIC have previously criticized this tool in an official complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, noting that it bypasses browser security and gives access to users' web cameras without their knowledge.

Zoom's sketchy privacy policy — "Whether you have Zoom account or not," the company's privacy page states, "we may collect Personal Data from or about you when you use or otherwise interact with our Products." This includes, but is not limited to, your physical address, phone number, your job title, credit and debit card information, your Facebook account, your IP address, your OS and device details, and more.

Unchecked surveillance — Unsurprisingly, Zoom's position on selling your personal data is vague. "Depends on what you mean by 'sell,'" the company states. It eventually concedes that it does sell your personal data to ostensibly "improve your advertising experience." The company's privacy policy isn't uniform either. Unless you're a California resident, where privacy rights are marginally better than the rest of the United States, other Americans don't have the ability to request information about Zoom's data collection practices.

Remote work and studying should not come at the expense of unsuspecting users. There's no definitive timeline for the coronavirus to die down but in the meantime, businesses and universities should seriously weigh the pros and cons of using tools like Zoom, and try to look into alternatives that don't obsessively surveil their clients.