TECH
21/04/2020 7:52 AM IST | Updated 27/04/2020 10:28 PM IST

Porn Zoom Bombing Is Here And Indian Schools Are Not Prepared For It

In the absence of clear guidelines from the government, many schools are asking untrained teachers to use unsafe free apps for online classes.

NurPhoto via Getty Images
India said last Thursday that videoconferencing software Zoom is not a safe platform, joining other countries that have expressed concern about the security of an application.

CHANDIGARH — A school in Chandigarh Capital Region (CCR) has asked its students’ parents to be present for all online classes after a porn movie began playing during a session, illustrating a major challenge faced by administrators and teachers as they try to conduct classes during the national lockdown.

The incident occurred on April 18 when a science teacher was about to begin a lecture on the reproductive system for her Class X students over video conferencing app Zoom. The teacher had recently learned how to use the app from her son. 

After about 45 students had joined the session, the teacher locked the conference room and stepped out to do a final audio and video test on her son’s computer. While she was away, a pornographic movie began playing on the screen from a student’s screen. It took almost five minutes for the teacher to realize what was happening and rush back to end the session, said a person familiar with the matter who did not want to be named. 

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When questioned by school authorities, the student denied that she was responsible for the blunder, pointing out that her father was in the room with her when the incident happened.

A cybercrime investigator told HuffPost India that this was likely to be a case of Zoom-bombing, where uninvited attendees break into and disrupt a meeting without the permission of the host. India is not the only country to face this issue—earlier this month, Singapore banned teachers from using Zoom after hackers crashed sessions, sharing obscene images and making lewd comments.

As India goes through the second phase of its lockdown, many schools and colleges have turned to free apps such as Zoom—which have numerous security issues—to complete their syllabi in the absence of clear instructions from the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and other government departments.

With no clear end in sight for the pandemic, several experts have predicted that this will encourage e-learning in many Indian educational institutions, though millions still have no access to digital resources. However, most teachers who have been asked to conduct online classes haven’t received the requisite training and are unfamiliar with the tools being used.

The Chandigarh school hasn’t reported the incident to police or cybercrime authorities, said the person cited above, but instead sent a message to parents, asking their consent for their children to attend Zoom classes, along with an assurance that they will be present during all the sessions. 

Safety fears

While the Zoom app has skyrocketed in popularity due to the lockdown in many countries, it is also facing criticism over safety and privacy concerns. In India, the home ministry has asked government officers not to use it for “official purposes”, stating that it is “not a safe platform”. 

But across the world, thousands of untrained teachers have been using the free software to conduct classes every day in a bid to cut down the administrative costs of private schools, putting the privacy of children in jeopardy. 

“Here, we are trying to run a formal and structured class in a public place. The difference is the same as it is for teaching children in schools inside a gated community and in open parks. In public areas, anyone can come and join the class and sit next to your child, click his photograph and can even use his name to introduce himself,” said Naunihal Singh, IGP, Cyber Crime, Punjab Police. 

Singh added that teachers should enable the essential safety features of such online software to save children from cybercrime attacks that can adversely affect their physical and mental wellbeing. 

In the Chandigarh case, the girl from whose screen the movie was shared has been traumatized due to repeated questioning by school authorities and classmates and is reluctant to rejoin the school after the lockdown ends, said the person cited above. 

The incident has also put hundreds of parents—many of whom now also do office work from home—in a bind as they have now been asked to babysit their children during all online classes. 

No clear guidelines from CBSE

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Students leave from exam centre after appearing for the Class 10th SST CBSE examination, on March 18, 2020 in Noida.

M.S. Rawat, general secretary, Action Committee Unaided Recognised Private Schools, Delhi, told HuffPost India that they have received numerous complaints pertaining to the use of the Zoom app by its members’ schools. 

“These complaints were mostly related to the abusive and threatening language used by the students using pseudo names against the teacher conducting the Zoom session. They used to create panic during the online class, forcing the teacher to end the session abruptly,” said Rawat, adding that the majority of its 136 members have now migrated to safer online teaching tools that have end-to-end encryption. 

While CBSE has recommended online coaching to its affiliated schools, it has not specified the medium.

“We have recommended online coaching to our affiliated schools during the  COVID 19 lockdown but have not recommended the medium as they cannot afford it,” said Dr. Joseph Emmanuel, director (academics), CBSE, adding that schools should use online resources such as YouTube videos and WhatsApp groups to interact with students. 

As many state governments have asked schools to charge only the tuition fee on a monthly basis during the lockdown period, many schools are reluctant to purchase a well-encrypted software (which could cost between Rs 50,000 and Rs 75,000 per year) to run online classes for children. Instead, they have resorted to free software, leaving children vulnerable to identity theft and other phishing attacks. 

If the lockdown extends further, schools and parents are rightly worried about what will happen to the syllabus. 

Dr Emmanuel said the National Council Of Educational Research And Training (NCERT) has already updated the syllabus until Class VIII and is expected to review the syllabus of senior classes by end of June. 

“Presently, the loss of learning time is approximately a month only. However, if the lockdown extends further, we will hold a review meeting of the syllabus of senior classes and may rationalize the curriculum as per prevailing circumstances,” he said.  

“We have recommended online coaching to our affiliated schools during COVID 19 lockdown but have not recommended the medium as they cannot afford it"Dr. Joseph Emmanuel, Director (Academics), CBSE

No training, test runs 

Ritesh Bhatia, a Mumbai-based cybercrime investigator told HuffPost India that the Chandigarh incident seemed to be a case of Zoom-bombing. 

“Either the administrator had shared a link of the meeting along with the meeting ID and password with the students, which was further shared by students with someone outside the class, or else the teacher forgot to lock the screen-sharing or renaming feature before the commencement of the meeting,” said Bhatia. 

Among the major security concerns in the Zoom app was a feature where any participant possessing a meeting ID and password could enter the meeting under any fictitious name even before the host joined. The person could also change their name multiple times during the meeting. This feature has now beenupdated by Zoom

In India, apart from their primary job, teachers are often asked to perform duties ranging from conducting cattle census, election work, pulse polio campaigns, ration card verification, and several other non-teaching activities—but they are yet to get accustomed to online teaching tools. 

“Initially, my school was reluctant to conduct online courses and wanted us to restrict online teaching to YouTube videos only. But then you cannot teach complex subjects like physics, maths and chemistry to students who do not have the privilege to attend online coaching centres and rely only on school,” said a Mohali-based teacher on condition of anonymity. 

In the Chandigarh school, it was after much persuasion by the parents that the school authorities relented and granted permission to teachers to hold online classes for students through free teaching tools, said a source privy to the information. The teachers were not given any preliminary training or made to do test runs before exposing the children to the vulnerabilities of the virtual world. 

Students sharing porn is also a crime

“Sharing and distributing porn material by school students is a punishable offense, but since the accused here is a juvenile, he/she would be tried under Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children), Act, 2015. The schools must inform the local police authorities immediately to prevent any such untoward incidents in the future,” said Ingit Pratap Singh, DCP, South West Delhi. He also said that schools should make children aware of the laws pertaining to JJ Act while holding online teaching sessions.