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Municipal meetings getting Zoom-bombed

WASHINGTON — The Town of Washington’s (TOW) most recent Town Board meeting held on Thursday, July 14, began at 6 p.m. with about 15 people in attendance, including the board itself. About another 10 or so attended virtually via Zoom, their faces or names simply displayed on a large monitor above and slightly to the right of the board table at the meeting on the 14th at Town Hall.

The meeting kicked off with an agenda boasting the usual items: roll call; the Pledge of Allegiance; resolution items; monthly departmental reports; and then what was expected to be the focus of the evening — the recently completed review by the Comprehensive Plan Review Committee (CPRC) of the 2015 Comprehensive Plan (CP). 

The board determined a meeting will be held in September for the CP overview, to give the public time to review the findings.

At last Thursday’s meeting, the highlight of the night turned out to be when Councilman Joe Rochfort was suddenly interrupted by a foreign voice. Along with another loud and confusing noise that blared from the room’s speakers, a quick look at the monitor showed numerous panels on the video Zoom session of naked men, apparently adult porn. 

Gasps and comments of “Oh, my God,” coupled with nervous laughter could be heard from those in the audience as well as from the board table. All present, including this reporter, were clearly dismayed, shocked and in a state of disbelief. The Zoom portion of the meeting and monitor were quickly shut off by Town Clerk Mary Alex.

When the meeting resumed, many were perplexed and asked what had happened.

Apparently, the term is called Zoom-bombing, a take off from photo-bombing. It’s also known as Zoom-raiding. 

There was a discussion right afterward about what had happened, how it had happened, why someone would do that and, of course, what could be done to prevent it from happening again. Someone also asked if there was any way to identifying who was responsible and any recourse to punish the person or persons responsible.

Then someone in the crowd said it wasn’t the first time a meeting in the TOW had been Zoom-bombed. Apparently, it also  happened to the Conservation Advisory Committee (CAC) on Wednesday, July 6, according to resident Howard Schuman, who was present at both the TOW Town Board meeting and the CAC meeting.

Schuman said the scenarios were almost identical, as was the initial picture of the person who popped up on both Zoom screens.

Councilwoman Leslie Heaney then said that the Tuesday, June 5, Planning Board meeting was also Zoom-bombed, but no pornography was involved in that incident.

Town Supervisor Gary Ciferri said later spoke about it.

“To be honest, I was totally shocked; I didn’t know what was happening,” he said. “There were voices, yelling, it sounded like a party, then the pornography popped up. I’d never heard of anything like this before.” 

The software company Zoom Video Conferencing was founded in 2011 as a popular a means of business communication. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit U.S. shores in 2020, Zoom conferences has become increasingly common. 

Businesses use it for remote workers; schools have used it for remote lessons; people use it for remote socialization.

The speed with which such virtual technology has caught on may have caught the world by storm. The fact interlopers have figured out how to intrude upon such technology should not be so surprising. 

Not only is it disruptive, distasteful and offensive — it’s illegal. Perpetrators who are caught Zoom-bombing can be prosecuted. It was the FBI that coined the phrase Zoom-bombing.

Some organizations ban internal use of Zoom, like NASA, to discourage Zoom-bombing. 

Zoom also offers waiting rooms to give hosts full control of their meetings, including who will join and when. 

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