Michigan governments take to Zoom. Burps, porn and arrest threats follow.

Kalamazoo city officials recently held a public meeting by Zoom. It was disrupted by racist, vulgar comments.

Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson was growing wary.

Someone going by “Sum Ting Long” had already shouted the first of several racist slurs during Kalamazoo’s virtual city commission meeting, Another, “Harry Potter,” was asking to chime in. And arguably the least offensive public commenter had suggested the mayor looked like an egg.

“This is not a productive use of public time,” Anderson, clearly frustrated, told colleagues last week from the confines of a small box on the Zoom meeting screen. “If we’re going to sit here as 100 people take advantage of this opportunity to anonymously kind of spew some venom out there, I’m not going to be comfortable.”

Zoom meeting tips

The FBI recommends exercising due diligence and caution in cybersecurity efforts, and taking the following steps to mitigate teleconference hijacking threats: 

  • Do not make meetings or classrooms public. In Zoom, there are two options to make a meeting private: require a meeting password or use the waiting room feature and control the admittance of guests. 
  • Do not share a link to a teleconference or classroom on an unrestricted publicly available social media post. Provide the link directly to specific people. 
  • Manage screen-sharing options. In Zoom, change screen-sharing to “Host Only.” 
  • Ensure users are using the updated version of remote access/meeting applications. In January, Zoom updated its software. In the security update, the teleconference software provider added passwords by default for meetings and disabled the ability to randomly scan for meetings to join. 
  • Ensure your organization’s telework policy addresses requirements for physical and information security.

Local governments across Michigan — and the country — are battling or bracing for so-called Zoombombers as they use videoconferencing technology to move public meetings online amid the novel coronavirus outbreak that, as of Wednesday morning, has killed at least 959 people in the state.

A host of pranks and pornographic images during videoconferences nationwide have officials trying to balance productivity and order with free speech and public engagement.

The Michigan Open Meetings Act requires officials to make decisions in a public setting that citizens can observe, among other things, and transparency advocates fear an overly broad crackdown on Zoom pranksters could deny citizens an active voice in their government.

City officials in Kalamazoo and other communities want new restrictions on public comments during videoconferences because of a host of problems during the past month. 

Last week, the Grosse Ile Township Board of Trustees cut a Zoom meeting short after its public comment period was derailed by racist and sexual remarks, while a grant program presentation by the City of Detroit and Detroit Economic Development Corp. was interrupted by burps and pornography.

“It is so unfortunate that there are individuals that find it humorous to hijack a public meeting where we are talking about important measures to help those in our community that are suffering,” Kalamazoo City Manager Jim Ritsema told Bridge Magazine.

The commission turned over day-to-day operations to Ritsema in March to ensure the government can pay its bills during the pandemic, but members met virtually last week to approve a $2 million fund for small businesses forced to close during the state lockdown.

“It was kind of jarring that people would use that particular time and space to push anything that’s the opposite of humanitarian,” said Vice Mayor Patrese Griffin, who is African American and noted that she regularly confronts less direct forms of racism than the overt attacks in the meeting.

Kalamazoo officials suspect their meeting login information was posted to an online gaming website or forum. They responded to a slew of offensive prank calls by limiting public comments to a period at the end of the meeting and only allowing speakers up to 90 seconds.

“It’s not a question of if we should have community engagement,” it’s how to do so in a way that benefits the local public over online pranksters, said Commissioner Eric Cunningham, who felt the need to apologize to residents after the racist remarks by others.

“Not necessarily because I was the one who conducted themselves in that manner,” he said, “but more so just apologize that they had been subjected to that.”

Prison for pranksters?

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month signed an executive order waiving strict adherence with the Open Meetings Act during the pandemic. It allows local governments to meet electronically, provided the public has an opportunity to participate online or by phone.

Since then, state Attorney General Dana Nessel and Detroit U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider both have warned of potential video-teleconference hijacking and cybersecurity breaches as local governments, private companies and schools move meetings online.

Nessel took notice last week after a reporter inquired about a Detroit activist news conference on water access amid the pandemic was interrupted by racial slurs and pornographic posts.

Such conduct could result in criminal charges, Nessel said Friday, including prosecution under Michigan statutes prohibiting the malicious use of electronics communication and fraudulent access of a computer network.

Federal charges could include disrupting a public meeting, computer intrusion, using a computer to commit a crime, hate crimes, fraud, or transmitting threatening communications, according to the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Transmitting threatening communications, for instance, is punishable by fines or up to five years in prison. 

“You think Zoombombing is funny?  Let’s see how funny it is after you get arrested,” Schneider said in a statement. “If you interfere with a teleconference or public meeting in Michigan, you could have federal, state, or local law enforcement knocking at your door.”

Zoombombers a different breed?

Public meetings could become more and more important in coming weeks as local governments continue to respond to the pandemic and brace for significant revenue losses that could force budget cuts. 

Groups including  the Michigan Municipal League, which represents and advocates for local governments in Lansing, are hoping Whitmer will revise her executive order on electronic meetings before it expires April 15.

The League, which has provided officials with tips on how to set up virtual meetings and avoid Zoombombing, “continues to work with the governor’s administration to address this issue and any other unexpected situations that communities like Kalamazoo have encountered, or will, when conducting virtual meetings,” said spokesperson Matt Bach. 

“The League is committed to having transparent local governments with open public meeting processes that protect our participants from potentially malicious actions by those who hope to inappropriately disrupt a meeting,” he said. 

“Yet we want to do so in a way that offers balance to allow individuals to participate in real-time and continues to protect municipal employees and residents from unnecessary exposure to the coronavirus.”

Ritsema, the Kalamazoo manager, said he’d like Whitmer to “tweak” her executive order by allowing residents to submit comments via voicemails or emails that could be played or read aloud during a Zoom meeting.

That would allow the city to “screen out” prank callers who disrupted the city’s last meeting with racist screeds but ensure “legitimate comments” are entered into the public record, he said.

That hardly qualifies as public participation, which the law requires, said Lisa McGraw of the Michigan Press Association, which advocates for open meetings and government transparency.

The Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to establish rules permitting public comment. Whitmer’s initial order requires virtual meetings to allow for “two-way communication” between residents and government officials. 

Public comment by voicemail is “concerning,” McGraw said “I find the Zoom people concerning too, but there’s people like that at every public meeting.”

Local government officials contend Zoombombers are a different breed, however, because relative anonymity afforded in virtual meetings gives them a license to behave badly without public scorn.

Not all communities have adopted the technology or want to.

In the west Michigan community of Otsego Township, officials met in-person meeting March 28 to approve a new budget, with open doors to the public. Residents wary of close contact fumed in the parking lot outside

"Our township is small, and we don't have the technology in-house to do that, and none of us knew exactly how to do it," Supervisor Bryan Winn told Bridge.

Officials would have had to use their own devices to meet electronically and were wary of security breaches, Winn said, noting some residents may have faced technology barriers as well. 

"I've heard of people doing it and all of a sudden there's porn showing up on the screen," he added. "I'm going to have to deal with the public being unhappy, because they're unhappy already. I'd rather do it [in-person] and not have to deal with that as well."

Some early adopters say they’ve had success using video conferencing technology for public meetings.

In Ferndale, just north of Detroit, officials “were able to run a very smooth meeting without any technical difficulties” or disruptions on March 25, said Assistant City Manager Kyle Pollet. Roughly 20 to 30 residents joined the Zoom meeting at any given time, and several asked questions, he said. 

Pollet and a colleague prepared members for a worst-case scenario by attempting to “spoil” a practice meeting, which also helped inform security settings the city used on the video conferencing software. 

“We’ve got it figured out pretty good, but the reality is people who are tech savvy and try hard enough, they’re going to be able to disrupt it, and that’s just the way it is right now with the applications that are available.”

In Meridian Township, near Lansing, officials used Zoom for one public meeting and are planning another. But they’re utilizing a separate phone system for public comment, which one resident used at the first meeting.

Meridian also set a password for Zoom that it makes widely available but is designed to discourage pranksters who randomly enter meeting ID numbers to try to gain access.

“I was really impressed,” said Township Manager Frank Walsh. “It went extremely well.”

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Comments

Anonymous
Wed, 04/08/2020 - 6:51pm

Unfortunately all these problems were happening with schools too as they tried to teach students at home. Zoom should have a feature where people have to identify themselves in order to use the service or be held criminally responsible for things like exposing children to porn.

Anon
Thu, 04/09/2020 - 10:12am

Or we could give up on this ridiculous, impersonal idea of using zoom and just do things in person like it's supposed to be.

Anonymous
Thu, 04/09/2020 - 1:23pm

Kyle, foolish!

Dingus
Fri, 04/10/2020 - 3:50pm

Not foolish at all! Going out for lunch right now!!! Sucks that the options are so limited, though!

Anonymous
Wed, 04/08/2020 - 6:58pm

Zoom could also add a delay feature so a screener can stop transmissions that are vulgar or racist.

Steve Vagnozzi
Thu, 04/09/2020 - 10:18am

There are other web hosting providers that are more secure than Zoom. Perhaps using them is an option to reduce these disruptions.

Dr. No
Fri, 04/10/2020 - 3:52pm

Nothing on the internet is secure; Nothing on the internet will ever be secure; Everything will be hacked. It is mind boggling that this universal truth has still not sunk into the minds of everyone after decades of the internet. Look up "have I been pwned" or similar sites and search your email address or other personal info. Every single person who has used the internet is in one of those databases. We've all been hacked and will continue to be hacked. Nothing will ever stop this.