When Zoom goes bad

Candida Lacey
Opinion - Books Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Candida Lacey reports on how a book launch was hijacked by indecent images of children

Last Wednesday evening (13 May), towards the end of what had been a delightful and engaging book launch via Zoom, my colleagues and I, along with the author and his guests, were subjected to graphic and distressing child abuse images.

It happened so suddenly and it was over so quickly, but not before 100 of us were all witness to a brutal act of violence against a child.

What exactly happened, how it happened and how can we prevent it happening again are questions that reverberate at many levels.

Like many others, I hadn't used Zoom before March this year. When the UK went into lockdown, it quickly became our go-to method of communication. Zoom was so much better than Skype, we found. "Thank goodness, for Zoom!" we said to each other as we gathered on screen, sharing a virtual Sunday lunch with our grownup children and their partners. With friends we've amused ourselves, planning "quarantinis" after work, marveling that we are finding new ways of keeping in touch with those living in other countries and planning to continue this post-lockdown.

"Zoom's security measures are woefully inadequate"

At Myriad we started using Zoom for our weekly team meetings and individually to catch up with each other on a daily basis. We use Zoom to talk to authors, especially those who are midway through writing their first or second drafts, who appreciate a friendly check-in and virtual coffee together, to try out ideas and plot changes, to discuss cover visuals and publicity plans. We talk about the potential of online festivals and events where we can promote their books, and how to rise to the challenge of publishing in lockdown.

Recently we've been meeting other publishers on Zoom too. In a pre-Covid era these meetings would have been held in London offices with participants attired in that casual but cool palette of black and grey that our industry has down to a tee. Zoom brings a new intimacy to these meetings. Now we are seeing into each other's houses. We can admire carefully curated bookshelves or family photographs, table lamps, oil paintings, mirrors, and perhaps even a view through to the garden.

On Wednesday evening, I could see 100 thumbnail views of people on sofas, at their tables, many with a drink or cup of tea to hand, and all gathered to celebrate the publication of Nicholas Royle's new book Mother: A Memoir. This was Myriad's first book launch via Zoom. We would have held the launch at my colleague's house in Bloomsbury, and while we couldn't replicate Corinne's Georgian drawing-room or pour glasses of Prosecco on Zoom, there was at least the silver lining of the presence of guests who otherwise couldn't have joined us. From Corinne's 95-year old mother, waving from her sick bed in Oxfordshire, to friends of Nick's in Canada, the US, France, Sweden and elsewhere, we brought together guests from far and wide.

For 45 minutes we listened to Nick in conversation with Radio Reverb's Anna Burtt. He read extracts from his book and answered her thoughtful questions with insight and a gracious candour before, in a flash, our screens were invaded and taken over by footage of a young girl being abused. It was only a matter of seconds before we realised what was happening and closed down the event. Within minutes we had reported the incident to Zoom and to the police. The police acted swiftly and seriously. They phoned twice that night, and each time asked precise and pertinent questions. An officer visited the next morning and spent three hours taking a formal statement. The following day his colleague took over my account and downloaded the footage onto an encrypted disk before deleting it from Zoom.

Because we recorded the whole event, the police hope that reverse engineering techniques will help them discover where the final few seconds of offending footage originated. Their priority, rightly, is to identify the victim and prosecute the perpetrators. The Victim Identification Team report that the evidence will not only help them to identify the child but also, because of the wallpaper and furnishings, the house itself and the perpetrator. Whether or not this footage was current has yet to be determined. I hope what we saw happened many years ago and the girl in the film has been rescued and cared for, and has grown up being loved and protected.

It is easy to be wise after the event, and a couple of people have been quick to point out the steps we should have taken to prevent Zoom-bombing. Although we made two mistakes (not issuing a password to all invitees and displaying the link on Twitter), it is unlikely that either would have prevented this particular attack. The fact that it occurred late in the event, after 45 minutes of conversation and readings, suggests it was a random invasion rather than an uninvited guest sharing their screen.

We had the usual precautions in place (the waiting room enabled, screen-sharing for the host only, etc) and we were using the latest version of Zoom, which promises better security, but the problem goes deeper than this. Zoom developed as a business-to-business conference platform rather than as a social media tool, and because of this the very structure of the security measures are woefully inadequate to cope with the exponential growth in usage since lockdown.

"The company is blaming the users rather than sorting out its default security settings"

The real victim, of course, is the child. Some of us will not easily forget the shocking violence of those images and it will be a while before we recover from the violence of the shock. It was a distressing experience for everyone present. It is distressing for Myriad as a company because it happened on our watch. It is distressing for the author: how is he to disentangle the celebration of his book with the grim reckoning of that night? And the fact that this happened during the launch of a book about mothering and memory - the irony would be exquisite were it not so painful. In an early review, Hilary Mantel, who described Mother: A Memoir as "moving and beautifully achieved… a testament to the writer's skill and generosity of spirit", pointed to its "finely judged and measured attempt to capture the flitting, quicksilver shapes of what we keep and what we lose".

"Flitting, quicksilver shapes" now have taken on a new meaning for me. We hear about these invasions almost daily. We know that the question of security and privacy protection is a priority, with so many of us communicating so trustingly via different virtual platforms. We are all learning as we adapt to our new normal. But we shouldn't underestimate the impact of Zoom-bombing and the trauma it causes.

A journalist friend tells me his newspaper isn't reporting these stories because the narrative has largely moved on to "Why has Zoom still not made it so that people don't accidentally leave their events open?" That is, the company is blaming the users rather than sorting out its default security settings.

My inbox and Nick's have been full of messages of support and sympathy, and reassurances that the image of him reading is the one that will remain. One of the guests remarked that "as the book itself is about remembering (and not remembering), this event has somehow sharpened the remembrance".

On Wednesday, it was hard to imagine that anything positive could emerge from the memory of such an intrusion and scene of violation. But if the police can identify the perpetrator and offer protection to the child, it would certainly make a difference.

Zoom could make a difference too. Five days have now passed since we reported the event, and we've still had no response from the company.

Candida Lacey is publishing director of Myriad.

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