Zoom platform 'no-go zone' for UK government amid China surveillance concerns

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

Security services raised concerns that the video conferencing tool was vulnerable to surveillance

Downing Street and members of parliament have been advised not to use video conferencing service Zoom for confidential business, amid fears it could be vulnerable to Chinese surveillance.

It joins governments like India who have also banned their government officials from using the platform.

In a strongly-worded statement, the Indian Home Ministry said, "the platform is not for use by Government officers/officials for official purposes. Zoom is not a safe platform even for usage by individuals." 

Earlier this week Zoom's numbers shot up by 100 million to 300 million users on Wednesday, a 50% surge since the lockdown began.

While Zoom’s data security and privacy practices have been scrutinised in recent months, many people have turned to video conferencing tools during the coronavirus lockdown to keep working as well as stay in touch with friends and family.

Meanwhile, the warnings to limit the technology came after the cabinet had used Zoom to hold a well-publicised meeting at the end of March, a decision that was defended at the time as necessary in “unprecedented circumstances”.

Parliament was advised last week by the National Cyber Security Centre, part of intelligence agency GCHQ, that Zoom should only be used for public business.

A parliamentary source said those involved were advised Zoom not to use the platform except for business and to avoid using it to talk about things detrimental to the interests of China”.

The warnings were not shared more widely with MPs, including members of the foreign or other select committees who may want to conduct inquiries into China-related matters.

Zoom is based in California, but it owns three companies in China that develop its software and could mean that they are vulnerable to pressure from Chinese lawmakers.

In recent weeks and months, Zoom was under scrutiny to look at ways that people’s conversations can be protected and have since released the new version 5 of its app with greater encryption and privacy controls that also prevent “Zoombombing” where people have hacked into meetings – such as Alcoholics Anonymous sessions – to disrupt them.

Citizen’s Lab, a digital communications laboratory based at the University of Toronto, warned in early April about potential security risks and keys which are supposed to encrypt conversations “in some cases, are delivered to participants in a Zoom meeting through servers in China” it said in an exclusive report published earlier this month.

A government spokesperson said that “Zoom is being used for unclassified communications in government under unprecedented circumstance” but added: “Other services are in place for more sensitive communications.” The availability of these more secure services was being increased to meet the demand of more civil servants having to work remotely, the spokesperson added.

The firm said the popularity of the technology made it of “high priority interest to multiple governments” and would make “Zoom a high priority target for signals intelligence gathering. and targeted intrusion operations”. Facebook is going all in on video In response, to Zoom, it is introducing several new tools designed to expand its existing video capabilities with the announcement of Messenger Rooms, a new way to join group video calls with up to 50 people.

Facebook announced on Friday the launch of the new feature for the company’s Messenger app that allows people to join a group chat – even if they don’t have a Facebook account.

The social network also doubled the number of people who could join an encrypted WhatsApp video call, from four to eight. It's adding video calls to Facebook Dating as well, and new live-streaming features to both Facebook and Instagram.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg said more than 700 million people are making calls on Messenger and Whatsapp every day. So, Facebook is doubling-down on private communication and trying to help people connect in smaller groups.