Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are working from home. With workforces scattered to the wind, many businesses have had to adapt to virtual meetings as the new normal, which has been a massive boon for the video chat and conferencing software Zoom.

In February 2020, Zoom added more users than it did in the entirety of 2019. Major media platforms started using Zoom to stream broadcasts from at-home anchors, and “Zooming” quickly became eponymous with video chats and virtual meetings.

SEE: Zoom video conferencing: Cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Zoom’s explosive growth came with increased focus on security and privacy issues that went largely unnoticed before. Major companies and governments around the world have been banning Zoom from work use, and half a million sets of user credentials have even been found for sale on the Dark Web.

Zoom has pledged to fix a long list of security issues, but that hasn’t stopped a third of users from getting cold feet. So, is Zoom still a video conferencing app worth using? If so, who should use it when so much personal and business security could be at risk? Learn more by reading this Zoom basics guide.

SEE: How to use Zoom: 15 tips and tricks (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Zoom lets people who join a meeting with an Android or iOS device share the screen of their mobile device. Zoom supports screen sharing from laptop and desktop devices, as well.
Image: Zoom

What is Zoom?

Zoom is video conferencing software for Windows, macOS, Linux, and mobile devices that run iOS or Android. It supports one-on-one calls, as well as group meetings that can hold up to 100 users for free or 500 users with an additional purchase.

Zoom, the company, was founded in 2011 by Eric Yuan, and the Zoom application was released in 2013. Zoom has been lauded for its simple interface, ease of use, and accessibility to non-tech savvy people, which has aided in its steady climb as a video conferencing app of choice for small businesses, enterprises, and individuals. By 2017, Zoom had grown into a unicorn company by reaching $1 billion in valuation.

Along with its desktop and mobile apps, Zoom offers solutions for enterprise conference rooms, browser extensions, online seminars, and a web client that allows meeting participants to attend meetings without having to install the Zoom app.

Zoom has attracted many users by having a robust free tier, which allows meetings of up to 100 people without restricting any app features, instead limiting meetings for free accounts to 40 minutes.

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Is Zoom safe to use?

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom saw a massive spike in users because of stay-at-home orders. By the end of March 2020, security issues started being reported.

TechRepublic sister site CNET has a total rundown of all the security flaws discovered in Zoom since March; here are some of the highlights.

  • March 26: An investigation finds that Zoom is sending user data to Facebook without permission. Zoom removed its Facebook data collection the following day.
  • March 30: Another investigation finds that Zoom is not using end-to-end encryption, Zoom bombs are first reported, and multiple flaws in both the windows and macOS versions of Zoom are reported.
  • April 1: Zoom is treating email addresses with the same domain (e.g., ISPs, but not email-only services like Gmail) as if they belong to the same company, allowing countless users access to names, photos, and email addresses of other users. Zoom CEO Eric Yuan issues a public apology, and Zoom freezes all feature rollouts to focus on security fixes.
  • April 2: A data mining feature is discovered that allows some users to gain access to LinkedIn profiles of other Zoom users.
  • April 3: Recordings of thousands of Zoom meetings, many containing private information, are found freely viewable and unsecured on the web. Zoom issues another apology, and reveals it’s using AES-128 encryption instead of the much more secure AES-256.
  • April 5: Zoom admits in a statement that some calls were being accidentally routed through a whitelisted server located in China.
  • April 6: The first collection of Zoom accounts is found for sale on the dark web.
  • April 13: A further 500,000 Zoom accounts are found for sale on the dark web, with many costing as little as a few cents.
  • April 16: Two new privacy bugs are discovered: One allows an attacker to view and download Zoom meeting videos stored in the cloud via an unsecured link, and a second lets deleted meeting recordings be viewed in the cloud for hours after deletion.
  • April 20: Former engineers at Zoom partner Dropbox revealed that the company knew of a 2019 Mac exploit months before finally addressing it.
  • April 22: Security researchers discover a flaw in Zoom that, with the proper malware, could allow recording of a meeting without host or attendee knowledge, even if recording is disabled.
  • April 28: A US government intelligence report warns that Zoom could be vulnerable to spying by foreign governments.
  • May 8: The New York Attorney General’s office closed its inquiry into Zoom’s security problems, citing increased security in Zoom 5.0 that led to the New York City Department of Education to allow it back into classrooms. Litigation continues in Connecticut and between Zoom and investors/shareholders.

Zoom has issued numerous apologies and pledged to improve its security.

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

Some of the security issues, like Zoom bombing, can be addressed by users taking steps to protect their video meetings, and Zoom has enabled by default many of the security features needed to do so. Other issues like poor encryption, lack of end-to-end encryption during meetings, and account theft can’t be stopped by good Zoom user habits.

Zoom released Zoom 5.0 in late April 2020, addressing many of the security issues listed above. Features and enhancements in Zoom 5.0 include:

  • AES 256-bit encryption, which brings Zoom in-line with other video conferencing apps;
  • Data routing controls, which allow account administrators to control which data centers meetings are routed through, likely to address the accidental routing of calls to China;
  • The relocation of security settings in one menu for meeting hosts, located on the bottom bar during a Zoom call;
  • The waiting room is now on by default;
  • Meeting passwords are now on by default, and account admins can set their own password complexity rules;
  • Cloud recordings are now password protected;
  • Changes to contact sharing to eliminate contact information leaks;
  • Admin dashboard changes that allow administrators to track how meetings are connected to data centers;
  • Chat notifications can optionally not show a preview of messages;
  • Non-personal meeting ID codes have been lengthened to 11 digits; and
  • Invite options and meeting IDs have been relocated to the participants menu to make it harder to accidentally share meeting IDs.

Zoom said that version 5.0 is a key milestone in its 90-day security plan, with Zoom CEO Eric Yuan saying the company is working to earn customers’ trust in the wake of a long list of security incidents.

As of January 2021, Zoom is up to version 5.4.6, which has added additional security and quality of life features such as:

  • The ability for hosts to pause audio, video, screen sharing, and text chat in order to remove disruptive members
  • Participant activities, like breakout rooms, can also be closed at will
  • The ability to report users has been added, which will boot them from a meeting and send an alert to Zoom’s Trust and Safety team.
  • Individual participants can also report disruptive users (this can be enabled or disabled by administrators)

Several additional features were also announced at Zoomtopia, Zoom’s online conference that took place in October 2020. These include:

  • The official rollout of end-to-end encryption to all users, which became available in late October 2020
  • New customizable SDKs
  • The introduction of Zapps (Zoom apps), which can be written by first- and third-party developers
  • A new platform called OnZoom, which allows Zoom users to create monetized classes, fundraisers, performances, and other ticketed events for as many people as their particular license (free or paid) will allow

Zoom also announced new functions to its unified communication platform, including:

  • The ability for meeting hosts to set custom backgrounds for all participants
  • Support for smart home devices like Facebook Portal, Amazon Echo Show, and Nest Hub Max
  • New whiteboarding features
  • Video support in waiting rooms

The latest version of Zoom can be downloaded from Zoom.us, and those with current Zoom installations should update their apps immediately. The Zoom desktop app will also prompt users to download the latest version of it is out of date.

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How does Zoom compare to Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Google Hangouts?

Zoom has a lot of competition, and its recent missteps have opened some very large windows for those competitors to step in and capture some of its market share. TechRepublic recently wrote about 10 Zoom alternatives, and some of those options have even added Zoom-like features recently to draw away security-conscious users.

Free video chat options similar to Zoom include:

  • Microsoft Teams, the Microsoft 365-integrated video chat platform, has been extended for free to anyone with an email address, and Microsoft has lifted meeting user limits to help those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Until further notice, free meetings will support up to 300 people for up to 24 hours.
  • Skype video calls can be attended by up to 100 people. For small business teams, this makes it an ideal option.
  • Google Hangouts is free for individual users. Google’s enterprise product, Meet, is now free for anyone with a Google account, making it a serious Zoom competitor.

Additional resources

What are Zoom’s best features for business users?

The allure of Zoom isn’t only in its myriad features, but also in its incredible usability. Zoom is designed with non-tech people in mind: Its interface is simple, signing up is quick and hassle-free, and it works well with minimal user input. Anyone looking for a video conference solution for teams with people who don’t like, or are unfamiliar with, modern tech will find Zoom a great solution.

Any business using Zoom or considering using it should keep an eye on tech news about security issues, and be sure to follow best security practices to protect your Zoom calls from unauthorized entry. Even with the addition of end-to-end encryption and other features, it’s important to ensure all the appropriate security options are enabled.

If Zoom’s security troubles over the course of 2020 aren’t enough to dissuade you from adopting it for business web conferencing, there are several enterprise features worth considering.

Video conferencing with Zoom, which is a free product with restrictions, can be upgraded with one of several plans that expand its features to include more participants, additional security features (like SSO, user management, and administrator controls), and other features.

SEE: The future of work: Tools and strategies for the digital workplace (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

Zoom Rooms is one such offering. At $49 room/month, Zoom Rooms integrates with existing A/V hardware in meeting rooms and features many of the user-friendly aspects of the regular Zoom app at a larger scale. Zoom Rooms has one-touch meeting join, wireless sharing, interactive whiteboard support, and its own scalable and supported hardware that can adapt to meeting rooms of various sizes.

Zoom also has a webinar platform that extends 100-person meetings to allow up to 10,000 view-only attendees. The 100 participants have the ability to use Zoom just like a regular call, making it ideal for panel discussions, media events, and education.

There’s also Zoom Phone, a cloud-hosted enterprise phone-as-a-service platform that lets businesses offload their enterprise phone systems to free up a bit of server room space. Zoom Phone integrates with Salesforce, Office 365, and G Suite out of the box, and phone calls can be turned into Zoom calls with a single click.

Whether your business should choose, and by extension trust, Zoom is up to you and your IT leaders. With most of Zoom’s enterprise features being designed for offices and not remote workers (with the exception of premium video conferencing tiers), it may make sense to delay a decision until Zoom has a chance to fix its security issues and repair its reputation.

Additional resources

Is Zoom free?

Companies and individuals can sign up for, and get started with, Zoom by creating a free Zoom account at its website. Organizations considering a premium tier of Zoom can find out more about pricing on its plans page, from which subscriptions can also be purchased.

Zoom has four pricing tiers, which include the following features:

Free tier Zoom users get:

  • A 100-person cap on meetings
  • 40 minute time limits on group meetings (one-on-one calls have no limit)
  • Local video recording
  • Access to the Zoom web client
  • Ticket support

Pro tier ($14.99 month per license, max of 9 licenses per organization) adds:

  • 30-hour meeting durations
  • 1 GB of cloud storage for meeting recordings
  • Access to Zoom’s developer APIs
  • REST API rate limits
  • Meeting scheduler delegation
  • Skype for Business interoperability

The business tier ($19.99 month/license, 10 license minimum) adds:

  • A 300 user meeting cap
  • Phone support
  • An admin console with user management, metric reporting, and feature enable/disable abilities
  • Vanity URLs
  • On-premise deployment options
  • Managed domains
  • SSO
  • Company branding (for apps, invitations, and in meetings)
  • Automatic transcriptions of meeting recordings stored in the Zoom cloud

The enterprise tier, Zoom’s largest ($19.99 month/license, 50 license minimum) adds:

  • 500 meeting participants (up to 1,000 with additional package purchase)
  • Unlimited cloud storage
  • Dedicated support person
  • Additional business metrics (ROI, adoption analysis, and roadmapping)
  • Bundle discounts on other Zoom enterprise products

Zoom recently added Zoom United Business as a fourth bundled offering, which includes the meeting features of the business tier, along with Zoom Phone service with unlimited calling in the US and Canada, with optional unlimited calling to 18 other countries.

Additional resources

How do I use Zoom?

Check out the Zoom tips published on TechRepublic, which include:

A virtual background from Magnum P.I. that you can use in your next Zoom meeting.
Image: CBS

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