The Collegian
Monday, June 01, 2020

UR class faces a 90-person Zoom cyber-attack

<p>Graphic by Jackie Llanos-Hernandez</p>

Graphic by Jackie Llanos-Hernandez

Editor's Note: The Collegian does not name victims of crimes without their permission. 

A group of at least 90 "Zoombombers" attacked a University of Richmond class on March 31 in addition to smaller "Zoombombings" that disrupted other classes the week of March 30. 

Zoombombing is a cyberattack where outside users enter a Zoom meeting and disrupt it with racist, sexist, homophobic or other offensive language. The attacks have increased as universities transition to online instruction across the country

The professor whose course was attacked was checking in on her students within the first five minutes of her class when the Zoombombing occurred, said sophomore Keshav Jha, who is in the class. 

Jha said he immediately had known something was wrong when he heard racial and sexist epithets. The meeting suddenly jumped from 16 students to approximately 90 more participants, he said. The Collegian could not confirm whether this number changed throughout the duration of the attack. 

“They all started verbally assaulting every girl in the class,” Jha said. 

Jha originally thought it might have been fellow students joking around but then realized the attackers were not UR students, he said. 

The professor said she had realized what was happening was inappropriate as soon as the Zoombombing started and reached out to UR's Help Desk, who caught the end of the call before it had shut the meeting down.

The professor had been caught off guard by the incident after all of the preparation Information Services put into online classes, she said. The experience had been unnerving, the professor said. 

Vice President of Student Development Steve Bisese, Chief Information Officer Keith McIntosh and Chair of the Bias Response Team Glyn Hughes sent an email to students the morning of April 2 to inform them of the Zoombomings and suggest resources to safeguard Zoom meetings. 

Before the attack on the class on March 31, an announcement in SpiderBytes on March 27 referred readers to the Spider TechNet portal to learn how to secure a Zoom account. McIntosh said UR had been trying to encourage people to use these resources and follow suggested practices.

The professor heard of Zoombombings happening at other institutions but never thought it would happen to a UR class, much less hers, she said.

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“I thought we had everything kind of tightened up, and it would all be fine," the professor said. "However, it wasn’t, and I’m going to have to really applaud the students in the class.” 

The professor said she was proud of how her students had handled the situation.

Jha said students in the class had checked in on one another afterward, which comforted him. The professor reached out to her students soon after the class. 

Jha received an email from Dean of Richmond College Joe Boehman a few days later, Jha said. In the email, Boehman offered support resources to students, he said. 

“It was just disturbing because that was not something you were expecting to struggle with during this time," Jha said. "Everyone’s trying to get their life on track. Everyone’s trying to study and have a normal time.”  

Moving forward, the professor said she had planned to continue using Zoom and have engaging class discussions. 

“It's not that you put it behind you — you don't," the professor said. "It's disturbing. It will take some time, but we want to focus our 75 minutes on what we're attempting to do with our course conversation and our course assignments that they're doing."

McIntosh said that although UR had contacted the FBI after the Zoombombing incident, UR had not been the first or last institution to experience an attack. The FBI did not provide any specific advice for UR and instead recommended UR share the bureau's general advice about Zoombombing, McIntosh said. 

In an April 2 email to faculty, Associate Provost for Faculty Sandra Joireman shared the bureau's advice, which included practices such as making meetings private, not sharing the link on social media, managing screen-sharing options and using passwords for meetings. 

McIntosh said that in some situations it would be possible to learn the identities of the Zoombombers, but in this case, it would be unlikely. 

McIntosh said he remained confident in Zoom’s capabilities as a reliable platform as long as people are mindful and take precautions to educate themselves on how to prevent incidents such as this. 

“I think the challenge is not with the technology but with the social behavior," McIntosh said. "And we have incidents of bad behavior on our campus when we’re in physical classrooms, so this was not different." 

McIntosh also said that he had wanted to ensure people knew all the resources available to them, including the Spider TechNet and Help Desk. McIntosh said if there was a resource needed that was missing, it would be made accessible so that all needed information to teach, learn and work remotely would be available.

“I just think we have to be mindful that no matter where we are, whether in the physical world or virtual world, there’s going to be bad actors, and you need to do what you can to protect yourself,” McIntosh said. 

Contact newsletter director Eileen Pomeroy at eileen.pomeroy@richmond.edu.

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