Someone hijacks online meeting of city officials, briefly flashes pornographic images

(AP file photo, via Zoom) An image of a Zoom video conference, taken in late April in Vermont. A group of Utah mayors and city officials has become the latest in the state Monday after to have an online videoconference briefly hijacked by unknown hackers.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.

Mayors and city officials from Utah are among the latest to have their virtual gathering on Zoom hijacked and used to display inappropriate images.

About 200 elected leaders and city workers had converged remotely Monday for a teleconference by the nonprofit Utah League of Cities and Towns regarding housing and unemployment trends amid the pandemic.

Shortly after the discussion began, pornographic images began appearing on participants’ displays, apparently exploiting Zoom’s screen-sharing options, according to the league’s executive director Cameron Diehl.

Diehl said an organizer of the videoconference tried to curtail the images by turning off participation functions seconds after they appeared. When that didn’t work, they shut the meeting down entirely.

“The frustrating part is, we are in a serious time right now,” Diehl said in an interview. “So to have someone pull a prank on a call like that is absolutely ridiculous.”

He said the league sent an email out swiftly with a link to a new teleconference and the meeting resumed shortly after without a hitch. Diehl said league officials are now discussing ways to protect the security of future video calls and the possibility of legal action.

“We cut the cord so quickly,” he said, “I don’t think we can track exactly who it was. But we’re looking at all our options now.”

The latest example of what has become known as “Zoom-bombing,” Diehl said the incident has underscored a rapid transition since early March by officials in Utah’s 249 cities and towns to online meetings.

“Security is a big piece of it,” Diehl said Monday. “Everybody is using different software, with different capabilities.”

Applications such as FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangouts Meet, Cisco Webex, TeamViewer, GoTo Meeting and others have all been pressed into similar service, prompted by social distancing and stay-at-home orders restricting public gatherings in light of COVID-19.

But since the outbreak began canceling in-person meetings and forcing millions of Americans to work from home, Zoom has seen its usage explode from an estimated 10 million daily participants in December to nearly 300 million per day this month, the company said.

The FBI has warned since late March of “multiple” videoconference meetings being taken over by people exploiting security vulnerabilities who then share pornographic, hateful or threatening messages — many of those meetings involving school students.

In early April, a morning online get-together of students sponsored by the principal at Grovecrest Elementary School in Pleasant Grove was hacked, flashing pornographic images on students’ screens.

A week earlier, a high-profile Zoom virtual town hall held by then-gubernatorial candidate Aimee Winder Newton was derailed with pornography and racist images.

FBI agents have urged users to password-protect Zoom meetings or use waiting room features that let organizers screen and control individual access.

Officials with Zoom said Wednesday the company also would be issuing new security updates for its software that include use of encryption for privacy protections.

Those new features, Zoom said, will be “enabled across all accounts by May 30” and would make security controls tighter and easier to use.

Return to Story