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In preparation for Warren City Council's most recent meeting, deputy secretary Mary Kamp had some added responsibilities. Because in-person meetings are no longer allowed because of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Home” directive, Kamp had to learn how to host a virtual meeting via video conference, using Zoom software.

The challenge was making the session accessible for everyone online, consistent with the state Open Meetings Act, which requires that public bodies meet openly “in a place available to the general public.”

Kamp said she spent hours learning her way around the settings and security protocols of the Zoom software, which claimed the No. 1 spot in app stores in March, with more than 36 million downloads worldwide. That surpasses popular social media apps such as TikTok, Snapchat and Facebook, according to mobile intelligence firm Apptopia.

Virtual meetings are new to many people who are working from home for the first time, as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to “Stay at Home” decrees that have kept more than half of Americans away from traditional offices and meeting settings.

The new technology doesn’t come without its hazards, though.

There have been increasing reports of “Zoom-bombing,” where unwanted participants disrupt online meetings with hateful and inappropriate comments or hack their way into forums.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel issued an alert Thursday warning users about video hijacking, and U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider did the same Friday. Both emphasized that hijacking video meetings could lead to criminal charges, including fraudulent access to a computer or network or malicious use of electronic communications.

“You think Zoom bombing is funny?" Schneider said in a statement. "Let’s see how funny it is after you get arrested. If you interfere with a teleconference or public meeting in Michigan, you could have federal, state, or local law enforcement knocking at your door.”

One such incident disrupted a Grosse Ile board of trustees meeting on Monday, where three participants made racist or sexually suggestive comments after the meeting was opened for public comments.

"Our aspiration was we would have intelligent adults making comments, asking questions they needed answers to, or ideas on how to make the township run better," Grosse Ile Township supervisor Brian Loftus told The Detroit News. "Unfortunately, that didn't happen."

Monitoring the attendance and content of open virtual meetings has become an increasing concern for cities and townships, including Warren. Open meetings are a public right but having them in an almost-anonymous virtual environment is a new frontier.

Kamp said the city hadn’t used Zoom at all prior to the COVID-19 outbreak but after virtual meetings were allowed, she had to get up to speed quickly.

“It was a crash course for me over the last week. It’s actually a pretty easy app to use, but I did watch as many as six to eight hours of YouTube videos and tutorials,” Kamp said. “We did a sample test with a couple of council members and our communications department.”

Kamp said Warren's first two remote city council meetings were broadcast on the community-access channel TV Warren through an online feed and proceeded without trouble. But she's still taking precautions.

“When setting up the Zoom meeting, you can put in protocols that not just anybody can join and I have to let each person in individually. I have the ability as the host to mute everyone and they can’t override me,” Kamp said. “As people come into the meeting, I announce (him or her), and then go through and for each person, I’m writing them down in the order they come in and then I’m able to chat or speak with them to see if they’re interested in audience participation.

“If they did start saying something inappropriate, I could mute them in real time.”

 It’s their version of a virtual sign-in sheet, as many groups would have for in-person meetings to track attendance.  

Navigating a new world

The city of Flint is using a similar tactic as its city council meetings have been moved online. The meetings are broadcast on YouTube and though some previous meetings have gotten heated because of outrage over the water crisis, the measures they have put in place seem to be effective.

Residents who wish to provide public comments must leave a voicemail message with a name, phone number and question. During the meeting, they’ll receive a return phone call and then they’re placed in the queue and unmuted when it’s their turn.

During the time for public comments, each person is limited to three minutes and calls are ended after that mark. The council also allows public comments to be submitted via email or a drop box in front of city hall.

West Bloomfield Township also had its first virtual board meeting late last month, without incident. Township clerk Debbie Binder said she has had experience with using Zoom but seeing some of the issues that other municipalities have faced has provided some guidance on safeguards.

“Our March 23 virtual meeting went better than anyone could have expected,” Binder said. “There’s a learning curve and there are different technological skills on the board and in the public.”

Zoom has been one of the easier apps to use and Binder indicated that the township also had an Optimist Club meeting via Zoom that brought more participants than they had in some of the club’s in-person meetings.

Battling intruders

Zoom-bombing has become a major issue for social groups that are relegated to virtual meetings instead of their familiar face-to-face interactions. Affirmations, a nonprofit based in Ferndale that provides services for the LGBTQ+ community, has moved some of its support meetings online during the pandemic.

Several support-group meetings sponsored by Affirmations last week, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups, were disrupted by derogatory language and harassing behavior.

“It was fine the first week, but in the second week, we had random intruders in meetings, being very derogatory, posting swastikas, and being verbally abusive,” said Kyle Taylor, development and community relations manager for Affirmations. “There are so many people who don’t have any other options than doing virtual groups for their recovery. To be bombarded like that, it was quite unfortunate.”

It’s unclear whether the disruption was caused by outsiders who hacked their way into the online groups or whether they were posing as participants. In the aftermath, Taylor said that future meetings will be password-protected, and links won’t be posted online or on social media. 

Affirmations has about 30 different groups and among them, about 15 meetings each week, including the AA group, which meets six days a week. Taylor says future meetings will be by invitation only from facilitators, who will more thoroughly vet potential participants before allowing them to obtain meeting credentials.

Zoom Inc. has experienced a boom this year, including having its stock price double since early January to more than $140 per share last week. The app went from about 890,000 downloads in February to more than 5.7 million in March, according to Apptopia.

The company has come under fire in recent weeks because of concerns about security breaches in the software. This week, the FBI’s Boston office cautioned users after reports of Zoom-bombs that included pornography and other inappropriate language and intrusions on two school video conferences.

Zoom offered some guidelines to help users avoid the disruptions, including keeping meeting links private, designating multiple hosts and managing participants’ options during meetings.

Tips for secure meetings

  • Use a password: Restrict access by requiring participants to have a password. Share that password only with those who are approved for access.
  • Control the settings: The hosts should know how to mute all users and disable the video if someone gets out of line. Disable options where users are allowed to unmute themselves. Don’t allow file transfers or private chats if there’s a concern about inappropriate content. Get familiar with these settings well before the meeting and know what to do if something goes wrong.  
  • Vet participants carefully: If possible, don’t post meeting links on social media or public websites and try to restrict entry only to people you know. Zoom has a “waiting room” feature, where the host can make sure guests are welcome before letting them into the conversation.
  • No screen sharing: Only the meeting host should control the screen that everyone sees. If someone else gains control, he or she could post inappropriate content for the entire group.
  • Victims of teleconference hijacking should contact the FBI.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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