Over the course of the pandemic, schools and workplaces have all but relied on online video platforms like Zoom to stay in session. However, while Zoom opens lines of communication between teachers and peers, using it comes at the increasing cost of user privacy. Late into a pandemic that has rocked social norms and the role of technology in everyday life, it is crucial to critically examine the ways in which college students can protect the way their data is collected, used and shared according to Zoom’s privacy statement.
Much of the personal data Zoom receives is controlled by what account owners reveal through their profiles and what settings they choose to enable within their meetings. For example, users may decide whether or not they disclose their company or school in their personal account details.
Students may also choose how they contribute in individual Zoom meetings. When they turn on their cameras or microphones, they allow Zoom access to their “voice and image.” Should students contribute to a conversation through the chat function or by raising their digital hand, this information is also saved and recorded. Perhaps the most intrusive type of personal information Zoom collects comes from the computers, phones and other devices people use to access their services. Zoom collects users’ Mac address, PC names and even their IP address, “which may be used to infer their general location at a city or country level.”
The company outlines several purposes for using personal data, which range from supplementing “product research and development” to sending “marketing and promotions” to consumers. However, the most interesting information from this section of the privacy statement pertains to how information is released when users violate Zoom safety policies or get in trouble with “law enforcement or government agencies.” To monitor illegal activity, Zoom “uses advanced tools to automatically scan content such as virtual backgrounds, profile images and files uploaded and exchanged through chat.” While Zoom may not use these tools for malicious purposes, users should be aware of what they reveal because these personal details are mined and compiled in-depth.
The next section of Zoom’s privacy statement covers how it shares data with several groups related to their company, including “vendors, resellers, corporate affiliates and partners.” In this vein, users are provided the most opportunity to choose what happens to their data. For their marketing and analytics partners, users may “opt out of [their] use” through the “cookie management tool.” Notably, Zoom is even required to ask permission to users prior to using services “where required by law.”
Another facet of privacy addressed by the statement pertains to what groups or individuals can access and share personal data when students use Zoom. In particular, this part of the privacy agreement outlines what account owners can see and access, the most specific of which entails “whether users viewed or downloaded a recording” as well as “how long people participated in meetings.” Essentially, Zoom has access to information and abides by certain laws in protecting it; however, people who conduct meetings are afforded a whole other batch of information that they can collect and share at will.
Users who have accounts with Zoom should also be well aware of the third-party apps that they add to their account and the certain Zoom services that those apps use. Some examples include the apps offered in Zoom’s marketplace: Google Workspace, Slack and Microsoft Teams are just a few that can be integrated into users’ Zoom experience. It is important for account users to do their own research on these associated apps because “personal information shared by account owners and users is collected and processed in accordance with the app developers’ terms and privacy policies, not Zoom’s.”
The last section of the statement doesn’t necessarily apply to all users, but handily demonstrates how Zoom’s privacy policies intersect with state privacy policies. Specifically, the Zoom privacy statement discusses the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018, which gives California residents certain rights. The first two principles outlined by the privacy agreement relate to the awareness of how data is used and certain user-specific control over how it is collected.
The third part of the privacy act is the most relevant to all residents of the United States — not just California — because it provides a mission statement for how Zoom regards privacy. Zoom claims that it doesn’t “sell your personal data in the conventional sense,” but instead that it can “use advertising services that try to tailor online ads to your interests,” which is known as “interest-based advertising.” On the positive side, interest-based advertising may accomplish its purpose, which is leading consumers to make beneficial, useful purchases of adjacent services that they want or need. In terms of cons, this advertising can incentivize overspending on subscriptions.
Technology — especially in regard to virtual communication — has become more pervasive than ever, and it is important for students to become literate with media and technology in order to supplement critical thinking and overall awareness. While virtual platforms like Zoom do present certain privacy concerns, navigating these efficiently and conscientiously can allow students better communication with their peers, families and professors.