Think you’re bad at video-conferencing? Boris Johnson is worse

UK prime minister scores own-goal with proof of worryingly lax approach to security

A screen relaying a Zoom video conference with UK prime minister Boris Johnson chairing a remote session with cabinet ministers while self-isolating. Photograph: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty

A screen relaying a Zoom video conference with UK prime minister Boris Johnson chairing a remote session with cabinet ministers while self-isolating. Photograph: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty

 

In the ancient era of history that was a few weeks back – way, way back when we weren’t yet social distancing or physical distancing or, for that matter, metaphysical distancing – the world divided neatly into two wholly disproportionate groups.

First, the tiny group of technological adepts who knew how to video-conference. And the vast, clueless, wholly unprepared mass featuring all the rest of us.

Outside of talking to friends and family on FaceTime or Skype, a one-to-one experience where it didn’t matter if dogs were barking or I was on a beach, I’d done perhaps a dozen work interviews as a journalist using various video-conferencing formats.

These had never involved more than two other people, and rarely ever used the video element. Basically, they were conference calls, not video-conference calls. Ever since a student once asked to interview me over Skype for a degree project, and I answered the call in my pyjamas, only to discover video was auto-enabled, I have been officially using our poor home broadband connection as an excuse to stick to audio.

Then along came coronavirus, and here we all are. Everybody was video conferencing, and we were not all fast as lightning.

We, the inexperienced, unskilled neophytes to Zoom and Teams and Skype and Duo, are struggling. We are the video Neanderthals loudly bellowing “Hello? HELLO? It’s ME” as we join an in-process meeting that we are very late to because we only discovered a minute before the start that you don’t just go to the meeting, but have to download an app and then find a long forgotten email with a long meeting code and a dial-in number that turns out to be for a country you are not actually in.

Oh, by now, you know us well. We are the ones appearing and disappearing on the screen as we accidentally toggle the video and audio-only options. The ones miming with silent intent in our little rectangular video-conferencing window cubicle because we keep forgetting to click the mute button off. Or alternatively, the ones irritating everyone with background noises – because we forgot to click the mute back on.

Etiquette memo

We are the possessors of the nasal hairs everyone else gazes into because we didn’t get the video etiquette memo that advises people to prop up their laptop or mobile so the camera isn’t directed up our noses. The ones with our heads looming against a distant view of ceiling because we don’t know how to set a background that places us before the Golden Gate Bridge or framed by a charming sunset. 

I found myself on a steep Zoom learning curve recently when I was asked to set up a group meeting on behalf of the person who normally does it, because he would be arriving in late and I, the tech journalist, was presumed to be adept at this kind of thing. I was not.

However, I did get it properly set up and was amazed to find everyone could actually join it. Although my partner did have to hold up hastily scrawled instructions at various points to give me some essential pointers from across the kitchen table.

I also did not have to spend the entire meeting as a potato, as happened to one woman’s boss, who utilised a Snapchat filter on Microsoft Teams and then couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. The viral tweet this week from a colleague (no, she hasn’t been fired … yet) even drew an amused response from the official Microsoft Twitter account.

Zoom doom

Any faux pas I have made as the person hosting a video conference session – which means you have superpowers, such as the ability to mute and unmute people at will, but should really include the capacity to impose Snapchat filters on participants without them knowing – pales in comparison to Boris Johnson.

As the UK prime minister self-isolates with Covid-19, and various affected advisers and cabinet members haplessly increase the herd immunity of the British population, Johnson proudly tweeted that he was holding a cabinet meeting and added an image of his cabinet-filled computer screen.

Except he was using Zoom, which has been criticised for a number of possible privacy and security holes – including a lack of meaningful encryption – and is considered to have security risks by the FBI.

The meeting number was also clearly visible, as were the usernames of some senior government ministers, offering potential targets for hackers seeking log records or recordings of the meeting, or to infiltrate a user’s account.

Oops. As things go on the scale of personal video conferencing crises, I bet he is envying the potato woman right now.

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