Coronavirus: UK Government Defends Use Of Zoom

The British government has pushed back amid criticism from some quarters over its use of the popular Zoom app.

Earlier this week security experts had urged users to be alert to the possibility that Zoom and similar applications could be hacked.

That warning came after it was revealed last week that the British government was using Zoom teleconferencing software for Cabinet meetings.

Image credit: UK Government/Twitter

Zoom use

Usage of Zoom has spiked during the coronavirus pandemic, and has seen the company’s shares rise dramatically over the past few weeks.

The government held its first-ever video-conferenced Cabinet meeting on Tuesday of last week, and last Thursday Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted a photo of himself using the application, in which a meeting ID was visible.

The Ministry of Defence meanwhile had previously denied reports that the use of Zoom was being suspended while its security implications were investigated. The MoD told the BBC that Zoom had never been used for high-security meetings, but was continuing in use for cross-government chats.

The Cabinet Office later clarified that Zoom is being used only for discussions that do not touch on high-security topics.

Communication need

But now the government has defended the use of the popular app, saying it was useful for government ministers who were self-isolating at home, where they have no access to official government systems to communicate with staff or attend cabinet meetings.

“In the current unprecedented circumstances, the need for effective channels of communication is vital,” a government spokeswoman told BBC News.

“NCSC [National Cyber Security Centre] guidance shows there is no security reason for Zoom not to be used for meetings of this kind,” the government spokeswoman said.

A source told the BBC that the app was quick to set up between the varying systems used by different government departments.

Over time, a more coherent system was expected to be introduced, the person told the BBC.

It is reported that the British government does actually have highly secure video teleconferencing at key sites, including the intelligence agencies.

This highly secure system can be used for “top secret” conversations, but the system is not installed in minister’s homes for example.

The government has also reportedly been rolling out a system called Rosa for secret-level working more broadly across government.

Meanwhile Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX has banned its staff from using Zoom, citing “significant privacy and security concerns,” according to a memo seen by Reuters.

Zoom issues

There have been a number of concerns expressed about the use of Zoom.

In July of last year researchers disclosed a zero-day flaw in the Mac Zoom client that could have allowed attackers to switch on a user’s webcam if they had Zoom installed.

The flaw was first reported to Zoom in March and the company took several months to resolve the issue – a response that experts have damned as “lax”.

Security researchers have also discovered that earlier versions of the app used to send analytics data to Facebook without making this clear to users, the BBC reported.

Also, the app does not use end-to-end encryption, as had been claimed; and the software reportedly sometimes exposes people’s email addresses and photos to strangers.

In response, Zoom told BBC News it “takes its users’ privacy, security, and trust extremely seriously”.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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