Online Meeting Tools and Your Privacy

When people use a library as a place to meet or study or read, one thing they can be sure of is that the library isn't monitoring or recording what they are reading or talking about. As more of the world moves to online tools to help maintain social and work connections while being physically distant, it's important to recognize some of the ways those tools work differently from getting together in person.

Video conferencing software like Google Hangouts/Meet, FaceTime, Skype, and especially Zoom have exploded in popularity for being easy to set up and free. As is always the case when we talk about digital privacy, there is a tradeoff between user privacy and convenience. These companies provide a service that is convenient by allowing us to meet virtually for little or no monetary cost, but they also profit from collecting information about the people using their service. Zoom previously sent data on their users' devices to Facebook when they opened the iOS app, but they say that has been fixed. Zoom still passes on data for targeted advertising and the New York attorney general is investigating security vulnerabilities.

Also unlike a physical meeting, a Zoom conference can be recorded, and administrators can access the contents of the call: transcripts, participants' location, what other programs were running on users' computers, and whether or not the attendee is paying attention to Zoom. While this can be convenient (for administrators), it does not have the same kind of privacy as having a chat in the library, living room or even a coffee shop.

So how do I protect myself?

First, educate yourself on your chosen tool's privacy policy (Zoom's is linked below). Then, take some time to familiarize yourself with that tool's settings. Default settings are often not the most private.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a Surveillance Self-Defense website about protecting oneself from online surveillance.

You can also view the Library's current Intro to Online Privacy class handouts and slides.

If you are interested in reading more about the bigger issues around surveillance and privacy, our digital literacy librarian recommends The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff (which is available as an eBook).

If you have specific questions about online privacy, please email us:

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