Zoom has zipped at hyperspeed along an all-too-familiar arc for hot Silicon Valley startups — from a ubiquitous D.C. darling to an object of suspicion and scrutiny.
Just weeks after emerging as the video platform of the locked-down era, where millions of people and some of Capitol Hill’s biggest players are holding business meetings, yoga classes, play dates and happy hours online, the nine-year-old California company faces scrutiny from Congress and elsewhere for a barrage of security and privacy lapses. Those include revelations about leaked videos, undisclosed sharing of personal data, weaker-than-advertised encryption and a disturbing new form of mass harassment known as “Zoom bombing.”
The furor has already brought a class-action lawsuit in California, investigations by attorneys general in states such as Connecticut and Florida, and pressure from members of Congress to tighten its practices. It also increases the odds that whenever the Capitol returns to normal, Zoom — a company with up to now little-to-no Washington lobbying muscle and almost no history of campaign donations — will join industry giants like Facebook and Google in the hot seat of D.C.’s tech backlash.
The speed of Zoom’s political rise and fall has been dizzying, considering how many years it took for much larger tech companies to see their popularity curdle in Washington.
“There’s a new thing almost every hour,” Justin Brookman, consumer privacy and technology policy director for Consumer Reports, said of the stream of damaging Zoom revelations.
“It’s like if Facebook had operated for 10 years under the radar and all the questionable project decisions that they made kind of got baked in, and then all the sudden they became wildly famous and then it all came to [a head] at once,” he added.
Zoom Chief Executive Eric Yuan, who founded the company in 2011, chalked up its latest woes to the sudden glare of the spotlight, writing this week that “we did not design the product with the foresight that, in a matter of weeks, every person in the world would suddenly be working, studying, and socializing from home.”
The company said the peak number of daily participants on its conferences has multiplied more than 20-fold from December to March, soaring above 200 million a day. Zoom has also quickly become a staple on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Silicon Valley’s own Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) publicly using the service for meetings and Q&As with reporters.
Yuan promised to focus the company’s resources over the next three months on addressing the regulatory and consumer concerns. But lawmakers and other government leaders said they’re not letting up until the company takes meaningful steps to fix its flaws.
“My concerns have not been allayed at all,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Thursday in an interview, referring to the use of “Zoom bombing” to spread hate speech and pornographic content in settings like online classes. “A blog post is no substitute for action and the vile hate groups are continuing to harass Zoom users, intruding on their meetings and spreading their abuse, and I want to see Zoom actually protect its users, not just try to message the problem away.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said Zoom’s security lapses could disrupt efforts to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
“As so many American businesses depend on video conferencing services to keep our economy going during this pandemic-forced new normal, we cannot risk complacency in our online privacy and security,” Blackburn said in a statement. “Zoom must do more to enact stronger security standards and immediately halt unauthorized data sharing with third parties.”