The Pentagon Is Using Zoom. Is it Safe?

A screen grab shared by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson of a cabinet meeting held over the Zoom app

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A screen grab shared by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson of a cabinet meeting held over the Zoom app

Experts say the ubiquitous videoconferencing tools bear some risk of accidentally exposing mundane details, and even inviting a new wave of deep fakes. But the risks can be managed.

Like a lot of organizations that are learning to operate with large swaths of telecommuting employees and contractors, the Defense Department is suddenly finding itself using videoconferencing software by Zoom. But as use of Zoom’s products has skyrocketed, so has awareness of various security vulnerabilities — and of the Chinese subcontractors who wrote large portions of its code. 

Zoom is officially approved for use in unclassified situations by troops, DoD employees, and contractors.  

“The Defense Information Systems Agency reviews and approves third party applications for use on official DOD systems, and Zoom is included in the suite of DOD Enterprise Mobility Personal Use Mobility Apps,” Lt. Col. Robert Carver, Department of Defense spokesman, told Defense One in an email. He said that personnel are expected to practice “strong cyber hygiene and operational security awareness” when using any third-party software, and the Internet generally, but he acknowledges that “there is no official policy with regard to the use of the Zoom platform.”

Researchers have charged that Zoom’s installer software doesn’t give users a lot of warning about what it puts on your computer, essentially getting around the system administrator; the app feeds data to Facebook; and two separate bugs in the software could be used by outside attackers to gain access to people’s computers. (Many of these issues are moot if you are using the service in your web browser rather than using the app.)

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Zoom also claimed to offer end-to-end encryption: that data was encrypted at every point from sender to receiver, even in transit over Zoom servers. But after the Intercept discovered that this wasn’t true and University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab further discovered that some encryption keys for Zoom meetings are sent through Chinese servers, the company reduced its claims to merely offering “encryption.”

Zoom also allows users to hold meetings that anyone can join without a password, which has spawned a trend called “zoom bombing” in which unauthorized participants join meetings and, on occasion, play offensive material. 

Technology and security experts that spoke to Defense One said that the wide adoption of Zoom by national security professionals likely would help China and other countries collect some intelligence.  

“Work-from-home is always a gold mine for intel agencies, and the Chinese will exploit it,” said James Lewis, a senior vice president and the Director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Peter Singer, a strategist with the New America Foundation, said the problem was less that some adversary might collect secret material, but rather the “wider array of information that could have intel value by the wider array of people that connect to the enterprise, a contractor, a tech campaign…It might be that little nugget of info connecting to three other nuggets that turns into intel gold. It might not be something useful now but useful a year from now,” he said. 

Such nuggets might help an adversary develop an influence operation or compromise a DoD employee.  “Again, it could have value beyond that conversation at that time. The parallel to think of is the Cold War. If you were the KGB, you didn’t just try to compromise the prime minister, you went after the girlfriend of the prime minister, the aide. The compromise might not be about stealing jet fighter designs. It could be about stealing something embarrassing. That’s a whole other area of this.”

A third potential threat, one Singer admits he’s not yet seen in practice, would be the potential for deep-faked Zoom conference sessions. Zoom calls are ripe for deep faking since they are often grainy and disjointed, not a hard-to-fake high-definition broadcasts. 

Singer pointed to a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode (“In the Pale Moonlight”) in which an exiled spy uses a shipboard explosion to create a forged video record. The forgery is highly flawed, but the explosion lends it credibility since the record would naturally be damaged. 

“They didn’t need the video around it to be perfect, they needed the context around it to be imperfect,” he said. “You create a context in which the flaws of false information add to the belief.“

Singer pointed out that deep-faked network footage, while it may be partially convincing, is time-consuming to prepare and rarely looks natural when viewed for longer than a few seconds. The sudden popularity of Zoom gives deep fakers a different, easier target. 

“When you’ve got people that range from prime ministers to the girlfriend of a defense contractor in poorly lit rooms using a platform that inherently has grainy footage, in an atmosphere of incredible distrust and conspiracy theory, it is going to be much easier to create false footage that will be persuasive in a way that a news broadcast would not be.”

Despite these threats, Singer said that he “wouldn’t count [himself] among the critics” of the company and that these concerns don’t necessarily mean that professionals in the security space shouldn’t use the service. Rather, they should use it wisely.  

Lewis agreed. “It’s right to be suspicious of China, but this looks like an effort to discredit Zoom.  One question I ask is: why attention only on Zoom? Are its competitors any more secure? No one has looked. The focus on only the market leader makes me wonder,” he wrote in an email. “Zoom has development offices in China (as do many big IT companies, such as Microsoft) but its backroom functions are performed by an American cloud service provider using a very secure service located here in the [United States]. That tends to get left out of the charges. If DOD is using [passwords] and waiting rooms with Zoom, it’s pretty secure.” 

Todd Beardsley, director of research at cybersecurity research group Rapid7, compiled a list of Zoom’s reported flaws, and an analysis of their actual severity.

“Yes, Zoom has some security issues. It’s complex software. All complex software has bugs. Some of those bugs are security-relevant. The engineers, marketers, and leadership at Zoom are neither dumb nor evil. You can judge Zoom on its response to security issues, more so than on the security issues themselves, within reason,” Beardsley writes. His verdict: “Nothing yet has convinced me there are better alternatives for my usual day-to-day.” He pointed to the fact that Zoom has instituted a freeze on rolling out new features for 90 days to focus on security issues. “That’s an excellent sign that Zoom HQ is, in fact, taking this all seriously,” he says.

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