Zoom just gave free users frightening news

You want your Zoom calls to be really private? You'll have to pay. And you might find Zoom's reasoning strange, or even laughable. It involves the FBI.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer on

Who wouldn't want to be Zoom?

It's become a verb as well as a familiar brand name. It's become the default way to hold meetings, dinner parties, even birthday parties with ribald dancers. It's just announced stellar results.

Zoom did, though, have a spot of bother with security. The feeling was that there really wasn't much security at all.

The company explained it was built for business, rather than everyday human use and suddenly here were all these ordinary humans, sheltering and working at home. But it leaped to address the security issues with juvenile alacrity.

This was all so impressive. Why, I've enjoyed so many Zoom calls now and felt entirely at ease.

Until, that is, I read a line uttered by Zoom CEO Eric Yuan on Tuesday's triumphant earnings call with analysts. According to Bloomberg, he said that not every user will have their Zoom calls encrypted, end to end -- a service that's coming soon.

Specifically, those left hanging somewhat in the internet's wind will be those who don't pay.

Yuan explained: "Free users for sure we don't want to give that [encryption] because we also want to work together with FBI, with local law enforcement in case some people use Zoom for a bad purpose."

It's a tantalizing logic.

Could it really be that those with bad intentions are so tight-fisted that they won't pay to have a Zoom account? Could it be that only the free people are a threat? (I fear some in America do believe that.)

Perhaps I've watched too many criminal dramas and read too many Norwegian police procedurals, but I fancy those using Zoom for nefarious purposes might find ways to ensure those purposes are kept private via encryption. By, you know, paying -- even if it's with funny money.

Which sends me into a pit of pained pragmatism.

It couldn't be, could it, that not offering encryption at the free level is an excellent way to get customers to give Zoom money? Yes, even the criminally minded sorts.

For its part, a Zoom spokeswoman subsequently insisted that the company was always strives "to do the right thing." She explained that all Zoom calls currently enjoy AES 256 GCM encryption. But that's not quite as reassuring as knowing you have both ends covered.

For Zoom, it's a question of, oh, "balance." The spokeswoman explained: "Zoom's end-to-end encryption plan balances the privacy of its users with the safety of vulnerable groups, including children and potential victims of hate crimes. We plan to provide end-to-end encryption to users for whom we can verify identity. Free users sign up with an email address, which does not provide enough information to verify identity."

Some might think that sounds a touch careless.

Yuan himself admitted that Zoom had enjoyed an "unprecedented number of free participants." If you can merely scare -- I'm sorry, I mean convert -- a fraction of these unprecedented free people to pay a little for encryption, your profits might reach, well, unprecedented levels.

Business can be so ugly some times.


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