Since all classes have been moved online at Binghamton University, the video conference platform Zoom has become one of the main ways BU professors teach their classes during the coronavirus pandemic — and recently, uninvited guests have been disrupting them.
It is known as ‘Zoombombing,’ a new trend where people who are not registered for a class join that class’ Zoom meeting and disrupt it, and it has occurred at several universities across the country, including the University of Texas at Austin, Arizona State University and the University of Southern California. At BU, it has happened in at least two classes, with students reporting experiences with loud noises, pornographic images and racial slurs and statements.
James Hundley, program coordinator for the global studies minor and an adjunct assistant professor of anthropology, has held two Zoom sessions of his class, Anthropology 166: Intro to Sociocultural Anthropology. During the first session, several people entered the lecture under fake names and made racist comments in the chat feature, taking some students by shock. About halfway through the lecture, the same people began verbally using the n-word, and Hundley kicked them out of the lecture, apologizing to the class.
After the incident, Hundley told the class in an email that Zoom recorded that the email addresses of the ‘Zoombombers.’ They were not students at BU, but appeared to be affiliated with a different university. Hundley wrote that he reached out to the Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT), which supports student-centered learning on campus, and is working with representatives from Zoom to log IP addresses and identify the hackers.
“This is not just happening in our class or our University — this is a nationwide phenomenon for online teaching,” Hundley wrote. “My hope is that anyone caught will be expelled. This is entirely unacceptable and I will share the sentiments you were all expressing earlier. Professional decorum prevents me from saying more.”
For his next lecture, Hundley attempted to make his Zoom meeting password-protected. According to an anonymous student in the class, the password did not work and the ‘Zoombombers’ joined again.
“Hundley tried to make the next meeting password-protected, but for whatever reason, it didn’t work and we were all able to join without it,” the student said. “This time, the things the hackers said were much more vulgar.”
During the second Zoom lecture, four or five people joined the session, taking on the identities of other students in the class and confusing them when they started making sex noises and shouting racial slurs. The student told Pipe Dream that they wished to be quoted anonymously because the ‘Zoombombers’ targeted certain students and they were worried they would be harassed.
“The second time was a lot scarier because they took on the names of students in the class and directed inappropriate comments to other students by name,” the student said. “They made sexist comments and told all the girls to turn their webcams on and said something like ‘show your boobies.’ When I heard the voice, I knew it couldn’t be the student whose name they took.”
Hundley told his students to turn their cameras on for the rest of the lecture to try to identify the hackers. However, as he tried to proceed with his lecture, the hackers got louder and more distracting, directing slurs and comments to students by name. They continued to make sex noises and put up pornographic images as their backgrounds. Hundley ended the lecture a half an hour early and said he might move all his class material to Panopto, a platform that enables professors to record their lectures and post them online for their classes to view at any time.
“This past Monday I had to immediately shut down because the level of vitriol was unlike anything I’ve seen before in a classroom setting,” Hundley wrote in an email. “I could not subject my students to that while I tried to make changes.”
A similar hacking happened in English 200C: Intro to African American Literature, taught by Patricia Lespinasse, director of undergraduate Africana studies and associate professor of Africana studies. During her class, hackers used slurs and made racist statements against black students.
“Someone hacked into my class today and upset my students,” Lespinasse wrote in an email. “It is already a challenging time for students to be learning through this platform and I think it is unfair that someone is disrupting the class. I hope the University will be able to find a solution to resolve this problem.”
In response to the hackings, BU added a section on its Academic Continuity page titled “How to Keep the Party Crashers from Crashing Your Zoom Event,” which provides instructions on how to lock a meeting, remove unwanted or disruptive participants and prevent removed participants from rejoining the meeting. Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations, wrote in an email that professors are encouraged to make adjustments to their Zoom meeting settings as needed to keep out unwanted visitors.
“Zoom is a great platform, but like any new technology, users need to take precautions to avoid disruption,” Yarosh wrote.