With the coronavirus pandemic forcing many businesses to adopt work-from-home policies, the demand for video conferencing programs appears to have increased. Indeed, by late April, video conference app Zoom was seeing 300 million daily meeting participants, a 50% rise from the 200 million recorded at the start of the month.
Amid its growing popularity, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation revealed significant privacy flaws with Zoom. SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, even reportedly banned employees from using the software on account of these vulnerabilities.
Blockchain projects are now getting into the video conferencing arena, looking to leverage the novel tech for providing more robust privacy and security features. The trend is coming amid a period when internet censorship is a major talking point given the recent actions by Twitter in labeling certain content.
Decentralized social media appears to be a major component of Web 3.0 — the third generation of the internet touted to promote data-driven applications and a semantic world-wide web. Critics of centralized social media say instances of shadow-banning and other forms of censorship are stifling free speech.
On the other side of the debate, there is an argument to be made that an unmoderated social media ecosystem would lead to the mass dissemination of misinformation. Critics say the mix of anonymity and zero moderation would allow some users to spread potentially dangerous rhetoric.
COVID-19 and the spike in demand
With the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic back in mid-March, public and private establishments began shutting down. Governments of different countries effectively closed down their economies, meaning workers have had to perform their duties from home and video conferencing programs like Zoom soon shot up in popularity. From serving just 10 million participants back in December 2019, Zoom was already claiming over 300 million by late April.
Indeed, the Zoom stock price is up more than 160% year-to-date. Its positive performance in 2020 has well exceeded the decline seen by the company in the second half of 2019.
Apart from virtual meetings, apps like Zoom have been used for hiring, firing and even controversially, handing court judgments. Back in May, a court in Lagos, Nigeria sentenced a man to death in a conference call, with Human Rights Watch saying the judgment “inherently cruel and inhumane.”
The increase in video conference use, though forced, highlights the swift pace of improvements in communication technology over the internet. With companies expanding their operations across the globe and the workforce becoming more international, it has become necessary to hold virtual meetings rather than having employees make unnecessary commutes.
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Indeed, some tech companies in the U.S. have created policies allowing workers to perform their duties from home even after the end of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Zoom’s position in the emerging video conference ecosystem may be increasingly under threat with the likes of Facebook and Google making upgrades to their video chatting platforms. Some of these upgrades include increasing the number of participants per session and better end-to-end encryption for greater security and privacy.
Concerning privacy and security
Amid the growing popularity of the Zoom app came reports of privacy and security vulnerabilities within the program. Zoom-bombing — the unwanted intrusion of individuals into a Zoom virtual meeting — soon became a norm, causing disruptions to multiple sessions taking place on the app.
According to the FBI, these Zoom-bombings have been known to include criminal activities like child pornography. The FBI has since deemed the activity to be a violent crime, with the Bureau urging users to implement more robust security features. Apart from Zoom-bombings, reports also exist of phishing attacks, identity theft, foreign spying and account hijacking, among others. In the absence of robust end-to-end encryption, rogue agents are able to access meeting recordings.
Never ones to miss out on a popular internet trend, cryptojackers have also reportedly bundled Zoom installers with malware that will force compromised computers to mine cryptocurrency. Some security experts claim that it is easy to corrupt Zoom software, as the program’s anti-tamper protocols do not employ robust mechanisms to prevent external manipulation.
Zoom is set to introduce end-to-end encryption on its software, with its previous security infrastructure differing significantly from the industry standard. End-to-end encryption usually entails encryption from one endpoint device to another. However, the previous encryption protocol employed by Zoom regarded servers as an endpoint location.
Enter blockchain-based solutions
With centralized video conferencing solutions proving to have significant security and privacy vulnerabilities, perhaps the stage is set for blockchain-based projects to leverage the novel tech in providing safer virtual video chatting platforms. As previously reported by Cointelegraph, Brave has already added an in-browser feature with end-to-end encryption.
The privacy-centric crypto-powered browser platform revealed that its new service, called “Brave Together” allows users to make unlimited encrypted video calls for two participants. Brave will expand the feature to allow more people with the planned upgrade already being tested on its development environment called Brave Nightly.
Brave is also reportedly using the Jitsi open-source encrypted software for its web-based video conferencing feature. Back in 2017, famed NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden vouched for Jitsi saying it was his platform of choice for daily communication.
Commenting on the suitability of blockchain-based video conferencing apps, Reuben Yap, project steward at Zcoin, a privacy-focused cryptocurrency, told Cointelegraph that the novel tech will not do much in mitigating the vulnerabilities seen in the likes of Zoom:
“Blockchain’s main benefit is that there’s no central authority but alone, it does nothing to secure communications which is the main issue that Zoom is facing. You don’t really need immutability either in communications and in most cases this is an undesirable thing. The key issues are scalable end to end encryption (which is tough) but perhaps more importantly, implementations that are designed with security in mind but remain easy to use.”
For Yap, end-users hardly care about the specifics of the technology, adding that “people will use what is easy and what is secure (encrypted communications). Blockchain doesn’t solve either of these issues.”
The social media decentralization dream
Brave’s video conferencing feature announcement came amid a flurry of developments concerning crypto and blockchain projects involved in social media applications. Theta, an esports and crypto conference streaming app, announced the likes of Binance and Google Cloud as validators on its network.
Days before the Theta announcement, Sensorium — a blockchain-based VR-powered social media platform — revealed that it has joined the Global Blockchain Business Council. In an email to Cointelegraph, Sensorium chief communication officer Brian Kean highlighted the usefulness of blockchain as a base layer for decentralized social media platforms, stating:
“The blockchain is wonderful because it will help discern who I am really talking with. Fraudulent accounts will be a thing of the past and people will really be who they are. Sound odd, being ‘real’ virtually but that is where we are today in this era of ‘fake news’ and hiding behind fake accounts.”
With incentivized blockchain social media platforms emerging, there seems to be a push toward decentralizing the social media space. According to Yap, fully blockchain-based social media networks are not possible at the moment, arguing: “Blockchain isn’t really suitable for storing large amounts of data though they can serve as pointers to outside sources.” Apart from operating at scale, Yap says the incentivization aspect of blockchain social media also brings up other issues, adding:
“A big issue is also making a tokenomics model that makes sense. Most of the current social media platforms on blockchain have their own token which can be used to tip and pay for things but many also give power to these tokens to upvote and increase visibility of posts. This actually can create a sort of oligopoly where early large holders have a disproportionate say in what content is displayed which may limit the growth of the platform. Despite the challenges, I am pretty excited at seeing blockchain power social media done right.”
Some of the support for the development of blockchain social media is due to the apparent censorship seen in centralized platforms. There is an argument that blockchains can theoretically deliver social forums that allow for free speech. But technical considerations aside, matters relating to free speech also tend to have a human angle.
Social forums like 8chan are living examples of how unmoderated platforms can devolve into rampant displays of hate-speech. Concerning the balancing act between censorship and moderation, Yap remarked: “The reality is that you cannot have a platform that cannot be censored to be moderated since moderation involves some sort of censorship.”
Unlike with centralized platforms, it might be possible to achieve partial censorship on decentralized systems if those in charge choose to censor a particular piece of content and remove it entirely from the network.