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  • John Bell

Tech Sense: Meetings from Home

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

Meetings from Home It's been a month now, and here we all are still stuck at home. Last month I deviated from my current series and tried to provide information about what technology most people need to work from home. This month I find that I still need to talk about working from home while also reviving the conversation about security and privacy.

Face-to-Face Online Meetings Meetings are for many an important part of the workday. Of course, when working from home you use meeting software like Zoom, Webex, GotoMeeting, Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, and so on. Recently, Zoom has been found to share data about meeting attendees with other companies even though Zoom had promised it was not doing this. According to a number of sources, Zoom was sharing data with Facebook even if you did not have a Facebook account. Zoom also suggested that Zoom meetings were encrypted and secure. This also turns out not to have been true. Private chat messages sent between Zoom participants are also shared with meeting moderators in the logs available after the meetings. Vulnerabilities have also been exposed in Zoom that allow evildoers to reach through Zoom to access files on your computer and connected networks. It may seem that I am picking on Zoom, but that is simply because Zoom has been the product most in the news recently. Several of the other web conferencing products have had similar concerns exposed over the past year. Make sure you are running the most recent version of any conferencing software. If possible, use the browser version of the software so a plug-in or other program does not get installed onto your computer. If you are simply a meeting participant and not the host, consider connecting with your smartphone or tablet instead of your computer. These devices pose less risk to your overall networks. Some attacks can be limited if you configure the meeting software so it can't share files between computers. Use a common file repository like Dropbox or Google Docs instead. Some meeting software remains running in the background when the meeting has concluded. I have confirmed this behavior on both the current versions of Zoom and Webex. Make sure you turn this software off when you are not in a meeting. Also, make certain the software is not configured to start when your computer starts. The software only needs to run when you are in a meeting.

It's Da Bomb The last month has seen phenomena called Meeting Bombing or recently Zoombombing. This is where people that are not invited join with the intent to disrupt the meeting. These troublemakers may make noise, put up pornographic video images, and do other acts intended to disrupt your meetings. This can be prevented by using a guest list and requiring attendees to sign-in with an email address and check it against the list before they can access the meeting. You may also want to require a password to connect to your meetings. The software allows each attendee to be approved by the host before they can join.

I See You, Can You See Me? Meeting software typically allows you to share your video feed with the others on the meeting. This means the attendees can see you and you may be able to see them. I suggest that it is best to configure your software so that video is turned off by default. You can always turn it on during the meeting if it is needed. Be aware of what you are showing with your video feed. Just because your computer is portable does not mean it should be taken into the bathroom with you. Think about what your audience may see; the clutter in your house or office, inappropriate posters or photos on the walls, people walking behind you, or other revealing personal information. Make the audience view appropriate for the situation. Today, most meeting software has the option to either blur your background or replace it with a chosen background image. I attended one meeting where a participant appeared to be sitting on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise during the meeting. This works best if you can setup a green or light blue cloth behind you.

Use a Headset and the Mute Button Maybe you have been on a call where there is a buzzing noise in the background, dishes clattering, people talking behind someone, or an echo from whoever is speaking on the call. These annoyances are often caused by people that are using the microphone and speakers built into the laptop and not muted. On many laptops the microphones will pick up all the noise around them including the sound coming from the speakers. This is where that echo comes from. The best way to deal with this is to use a headset. Even something as simple as earplugs designed for a cell phone with a built-in mike ($5 at Five Below) will work. I personally prefer using the same Bluetooth headset I use for my mobile phone (Plantronics Voyager 2) or an inexpensive gaming headset. All these solutions isolate the sounds from the conference from the sounds going into the microphone. Noise reduction headsets (like the previously mentions Voyager) also filter out external sounds only letting your voice through. When on a call it is best practice to enable mute unless you are actively speaking. This will prevent outside noises from disrupting the call while you are in listening mode. Even when I am speaking, I tend to be ready to hit mute as a cough button.

Over and Out Wrapping this up, I hope that everyone in Beltsville continues to stay safe during these current challenges. Hopefully, next month we will fully engage with the security and privacy discussion started at the beginning of the year. In the meantime, meet well but do it virtually.

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