Zoom muppets

There is an interesting article on The Register, a news and opinion website popular with computer nerds.  Zoom’s end-to-end encryption isn’t actually end-to-end at all. Good thing the PM isn’t using it for Cabinet calls. Oh ….

Apparently that “first-ever digital Cabinet” used the same remote conferencing system that we lesser mortals use for local party committee meetings during the pandemic – Zoom.

In theory, information travelling via that platform should be secured by high-tech encryption, but anyone who follows the news of bugs in operating systems, computer chips, and so on knows that is not true.  All the world’s big-budget secret squirrels (NSA, FSB, GCHQ, etc) can read almost anything travelling across the Internet, if they think it is important enough.  Edward Snowden’s book describes his former colleagues cheerfully snooping on the whole world.

Maybe Johnson’s cabinet showed that picture of them tele-conferencing with Zoom as a piece of public relations, with the real business done with a truly secure, secret government system.  However, ministers’ track record of technical stupidity does not inspire confidence.  For example, their proposals to ban encryption would break the banking system.  At the very least, cabinet ministers have broadcast metadata about their home connections, and have painted a target on their backs for run-of-the-mill hackers stuck at home to aim at.

As Liberal Democrats we support open government, and should welcome cameras present during some Cabinet deliberations, but even we accept that much of its business must be kept secret.  Not having a secure communications system ready for delocalised government looks like another example of right-wingers’ inability to plan ahead rationally, rather like their under-resourcing of the NHS.

* Anthony Durham retired after careers as a research scientist and computer software publisher and is a long-serving member of the Lib Dems, living in Greenwich

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • James Belchamber 2nd Apr '20 - 9:54pm

    The Register is the Daily Mail of the IT industry – they engage in climate change denial etc. Although there may be some truth between the spin, nobody worth your time takes them seriously.

  • John Chandler 3rd Apr '20 - 8:55am

    I’m not sure I put the Reg in Daily Mail territory, though they’re certainly not the quality broadsheet of the IT press. However, they are indeed correct. Zoom has had a number of security issues reported, as well as some dubious practices behind-the-scenes which could lead to exploits. It is, however, the best of a bad bunch of similar software in use at the moment. Convenience overtakes security for most people.

    As for government policy, both Labour and the Conservatives have been hell-bent on following the Americans in wanting backdoors in encryption for many years, ostensibly to defeat “terrorists” but more likely to snoop on everyone. Of course, a backdoor for the intelligence services is a backdoor for everyone and opens up the digital infrastructure of the UK/world to foreign intelligence services, terrorists, criminals, and crackers. If the intelligence services think they have a “cyber crime” problem right now, weakening security for their convenience will really open the floodgates.

  • Not having a secure communications system ready for delocalised government looks like another example of right-wingers’ inability to plan ahead rationally, rather like their under-resourcing of the NHS. ???
    This is more about being comfortable with the status quo and resisting or even being blind to the possible – until the world changes… Whilst the public have been amused by the panic buying of toilet rolls, in the IT sector there has been a similar rush to buy laptops so that staff can work from home.
    We see this blndness in the LibDems over their conference, resisting calls to increase accessibility to the many who for various reasons are unable to attend conference in person. it is only now that the world has changed are the LibDems starting to consider online conferencing…

    From my dealings with Government, I can’t think of any video conferencing solution that occupies the same space as Zoom. Yes, there are conferencing solutions, these however are desk-based and thus use an pre-existing secure infrastructure (including secure desktops) to satisfy government security requirements. ie. they are not solutions that can be up and running within hours to the geographically scattered members of the Cabinet and their expert advisors, that the end users can themselves set up and get using…

    From this I expect both Zoom to enhance their service to deliver better security and for PDS/Cabinet Office to start addressing the needs of the new world. Personally, I expect many will still be working from home in September, at which point we can expect many people to resist the calls to (unnecessarily) return to commuting into an office just to use the same computer and access the same systems…

  • Phil Beesley 3rd Apr '20 - 1:44pm

    James Belchamber: “The Register is the Daily Mail of the IT industry…”

    When established, The Register modelled itself on Private Eye, delivering straight news with a snarky tone and reporting stories which other IT news sites ignored. Liberals should be grateful to The Reg for its coverage of National ID cards, facial recognition camera systems etc. Like Private Eye, The Reg sometimes picks a story which leads to it barking up the wrong tree. On other occasions, I have trusted an IT vendor for a few years only to learn that The Reg’s scepticism was valid (e.g. Intel IME).

    As for Zoom, it isn’t malware and I tend to agree with Roland that alternatives are hard to find. If it was easy to do, somebody would have done it. That is not to say that Zoom has not made technical mistakes and that its business model (based on selling personal data) means that its use by government would be questionable in normal times. Zoom deserve credit for taking criticism on the nose and working on fixes.

    Virtual conferences? Virtual democratic assemblies? Is there anything available off the shelf which provides appropriate functionality for political parties or local/national government? Maybe there’s an organisation out there which can publish source code which can be developed further.

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