Videoconferencing company Zoom confirmed this week that it won’t enable its end-to-end encryption for free calls because it wants to allow law enforcement access to these calls if necessary.
Zoom’s statement about the policy reads: “Zoom does not proactively monitor meeting content, and we do not share information with law enforcement except in circumstances like child sex abuse. We do not have backdoors where participants can enter meetings without being visible to others. None of this will change,” says a spokesperson.
“Zoom’s end-to-end encryption plan balances the privacy of its users with the safety of vulnerable groups, including children and potential victims of hate crimes. We plan to provide end-to-end encryption to users for whom we can verify identity, thereby limiting harm to these vulnerable groups. Free users sign up with an email address, which does not provide enough information to verify identity.”
“We think this feature should be a part of our offering” for professional customers, says Zoom CEO Eric Yuan in a meeting with investors Tuesday. “Free users — for sure we don’t want to give [them] that, because we also want to work together with the FBI, with local law enforcement, in case some people use Zoom for a bad purpose.”
Encryption has been a key and controversial issue for Zoom, which has spent the last few months trying to bolster its privacy and security after a great surge in usage exposed the platform’s flaws during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reuters reported last week that the company will only roll out high-security end-to-end encryption to paying customers, potentially with exceptions for dissident groups or nonprofits that require the added security.
The entire industry is currently undergoing a conversation about protecting privacy without making it too difficult to police illegal activity online. According to The Verge, Child safety advocates have been warning that predators use Zoom — along with other live video platforms — to live stream abuse, with one federal prosecutor dubbing it “the Netflix of child pornography.”
Strong end-to-end encryption for everyone might make it far more difficult for companies and authorities to police such content, but it also offers additional protection for people who are discussing sensitive information or are at risk of intrusion and harassment. There is also nothing stopping paid accounts from performing illegal activity fully covered by Zoom’s encryption. The Verge writes that Zoom’s decision can be seen as a way to rid itself of the ‘riff-raff’ who anonymously connect to make free calls.
Yuan emphasized that encryption requires practical trade-offs as well since people can’t do things like dial into an encrypted call with a phone. So it’s likely that even many business customers won’t use it all the time. But his comments also emphasize that keeping law enforcement in the loop is one of Zoom’s priorities.