Hey—You’re Muted! Privacy in the Zoom-Era

Hey—You’re Muted! Privacy in the Zoom-Era

Laptop, tablet, and phone on desk

Photo By: Gabriel Benois (Unsplash)

Junghi Woo is an IPilogue Writer and a 3L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.


Privacy has been a reoccurring issue debated across the world as virtual communication is no longer seen as an option but essential to working remotely during a pandemic. The rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic may be said to have pushed society to forego privacy concerns for the quick, convenient ability to transition work to virtual platforms. Nowadays, work is almost impossible to achieve without the use of programs like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

However, a year and a half since the lockdowns began, we may start to question if these platforms are safe to use. Many of us do not yet have the choice but as the world is, hopefully, starting to return to the office, we should strongly consider as we move forward whether our online data will ever be fully “protected”?

Zoom: The 2020 Icon of Remote Work

Zoom, an all-time favourite, recently agreed to pay $85 million to settle a lawsuit over claims of violating users’ privacy rights through unconsented sharing of personal information with social media platforms including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google. Further, Zoom is alleged to have used transport encryption instead of end-to-end encryption as they respresented. The difference between the two encryption protocols lies in Zoom’s access to the video and audio content of our meetings; the former allows such access, whereas the latter does not. Though Zoom denied these allegations, it agreed to boost its security measures through app updates and the “official” use of end-to-end encryption.

Access to our Zoom meetings may not present immediate concerns for our weekly virtual wine nights, but calls hosting confidential business and lawyer-client meetings may warrant alternative measures.

What about Other Platforms?

Microsoft Teams, another staple, has issues as well. While the platform introduced additional security measures, such as end-to-end encryption, this past year, its user activity reports prompted many questions. In addition to collecting your personal data, Microsoft Teams records your online activity—the numbers of messages, calls, and meetings you participated in. Perhaps more concerning is that your employer can access these records as well.

Dangers of Unprotected Information

Other than the moral concern that our information is being collected, stored, and shared without our consent, our information may also be sold as commodities. Harvard Business School scholar Shoshana Zuboff calls this activity “surveillance capitalism”, where companies employ users’ internet browsing activities and data to create strategies that influence online consumer behaviour. Not only does this violate our privacy rights, but it also creates a bigger ethical dilemma within the economic market.

Why Now?

Zoom’s security changes were not proactive. In a sense, changes were made only after public backlash. One may question what else they are hiding or if they would have made such changes had this issue not been brought into the spotlight. Are there other data collection and usage activities we are not aware of?

The Pandemic Impact

Subtle or not, virtual platforms have always prompted privacy concerns. The difference now is that using these platforms is no longer an option—it is, in many cases, essential to earn a living, increasing human rights concerns. One may argue that employers are forcing employees to sacrifice their privacy rights as a condition to keep their jobs. Without these platforms, working from home can become quite inconvenient and inefficient, affecting their job performance and the company’s bottomline.

What Does the Future Hold?

Microsoft Teams provides a few options for users to opt out of providing some of their personal information. Virtual platforms continue to promise stronger security measures. However, is it even possible to assure complete protection of our privacy? Or must we accept and adapt to this world where our information is scattered and controlled by unknown entities in exchange for these seemingly essential services, that we often pay for?

Most of the world seems to favour keeping a piece of the work-from-home lifestyle post-pandemic, which means our usage and reliance on these online platforms will only continue to grow. The pressure for companies to change will either come from legislation or consumers.  Without any pressure or change, we may just be headed towards George Orwell’s vision of 1984…in 2021.

Now, are you sure you want to unmute?