Category: Video-conferencing

When should you spontaneously make that videocall

Article

Amazon Echo Show 10 in videocall - press image courtesy of Amazon

You may need to be careful about spontaneously making or taking that videocall if you want to use this communications medium effectively

Don’t spontaneously FaceTime people and expect them to pick up | Mashable

My Comments

Most of us have a preference for seeing people face-to-face but people who are from the Generation Z or younger generations increasing are interested in making and taking videocalls.

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and its associated stay-at-home requirements enacted by many a jurisdiction has had us wanting to make more of the videocalls. This includes participating in multiple-party videoconferences for work, learning or social life using platforms like Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams.

How presentable do you look?

As a kid who has shown interest in science-fiction and futurist-technology material, I had seen plenty of reference to videocalls as part of what communications would be about in the future. A lot of this material talked of videocall technology as a “Picturephone” or videophone and illustrated regular use of this mode of calling.

At times I had engaged in conversation about this technology and how it would fit in to our lives. An issue that was raised by some girls and women I talked to was having to “look beautiful or handsome enough” for the videocall. We raised issues like having the need to dress up or to get your hair or face right for that call.

WhatsApp desktop with videoconference support press image courtesy of WhatsApp

Not all times may be right for those videocalls

The Mashable article referenced the situation of the author being in nightwear when the Facetime call came in. This could extend to being dressed in everyday clothing you wear around the house versus the more impressionable clothing you wear when away from home or receiving visitors.

Here you can take a voice call in a flexible manner. For example, you could be out and about, you could be doing other activities at home or not worrying about being fully dressed up to take the call. The person on the other side of the line doesn’t know what you are doing or how you look.

How emotionally prepared are you?

Another factor raised is how emotionally prepared you should be. Here you would make sure you are emotionally prepared to meet someone face-to-face, similarly you should be emotionally prepared for that videocall. This is the analogy of when someone drops in at your home unexpected with this sudden arrival being very stressful for them.

This is because a videocall can be like a long face-to-face conversation rather than something that can take place quickly. Some callers can use these videocalls to pick up on any facial expressions that you exhibit during the call. As well, if you use a handheld device like a smartphone or a tablet to make or take the videocall, any shakiness that happens with your hands due to nervousness can be magnified as far as the caller is concerned.

Some people even see those Zoom multi-party videoconferences that they take part in for work as something that is very tiring. It can become aggravated where there are frequent videoconferences taking place during the workday for example. This can be about having to concentrate on how each other comes across and the messages they are conveying

How comfortable are you and what impression do you want to convey?

You may also be thinking of making sure you are comfortable before the videocall. It may be whether to sit at a desk or table or relax in lounge furniture like an armchair during the videocall.

Then you think of what the caller sees around you during the videocall as in whether the space conveys the right impression that you want to convey. This may be about having a particular bookcase or picture window behind you during the videocall or whether to go in to the garden or on to the balcony for that videocall.

Some parents of young children may want to leave the toys that their children are playing with lying around. This would be to “set the scene” about their children happily engaging in play. Or someone who loves cooking may leave food they are preparing out but in a neat manner in order to convey their love of food and cookery.

An example often seen on TV news and information programming during the COVID-19 lockdowns was how different presenters set up their “home studios” for their TV appearances when they broadcast from home. A financial presenter on ABC Australia’s nightly news bulletins had a picture window behind him and a set of different books in front of him. Then, on the same channel, an infectious-diseases expert who regularly appeared with commentary about how COVID-19 was to be managed had a large bookcase behind her.

It will also include the privacy of other members of your household especially where the background would show a thoroughfare or area of activity within your home. That is very common with the idea of open-plan interior layouts or having the front door opening directly in to the lounge area.

Even the device you use for a videocall may be important to you. This could be about using a laptop versus a tablet or smartphone for the purpose or even to use that Webcam for the videocall.

What can you do?

A good practice with making videocalls is to make a voice call or send a text message asking whether the caller wants to engage in a videocall with you before making that videocall. Here, it may be about having some warning time to get ourselves ready to make or take the call.

You may want to create an exception to this rule for those times where you and a certain caller may want to engage in impromptu videocalls and do not mind doing that. For example some parents may want to make a point of having their child take part in a videocall with that doting relative or friend perhaps as part of a family ritual.

Conclusion

It is important to consider the videocalls and multi-party videoconferences as a different kettle of fish compared to audio calls or text messaging. Then it simplifies the process of adapting your communications strategies to these different modalities.

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WhatsApp and Signal are bringing forth desktop video calling

Articles

WhatsApp desktop with videoconference support press image courtesy of WhatsApp

WhatsApp now does one-to-one video videocalls on the desktop

How to Make WhatsApp Voice and Video Calls on Desktop (lifehacker.com.au)

From the borse’s mouth

WhatsApp

Introducing private and secure calling from the desktop – WhatsApp Blog

Signal

A new platform is calling: Help us test one-to-one voice and video conversations on Signal Desktop (Blog Post from Signal)

My Comments

Signal desktop one-on-one videoconferencing press picture courtesy of the Signal Foundation

… as does Signal

WhatsApp and Signal, both messaging and calling systems that implement end-to-end encryption, are dependent on a primary client which is the user’s smartphone. But both platforms also implement secondary software native to most desktop operating systems so that users can interact with these platforms on their regular computer.

But the desktop programs for these services are dependent on the primary smartphone which has the user’s mobile number and encryption keys to work properly. The software was initially set up for personal and group chat abilities only but has now been “built out” to support one-on-one audio and video calls using the desktop client software.

WhatsApp and Signal's relationship with their desktop clients

How WhatsApp and Signal work with their desktop client software

Some users prefer to use a desktop or laptop computer to make or take videocalls due to the larger screen these devices offer. As well, there is an increasing number of Windows-powered 2-in-1 convertibles that can easily answer this need.

What has now happened for WhatsApp and Signal is that the latest versions of their desktop client software is now supporting voice and video calling. At the moment, this will support one-on-one voice and videocalling.

Signal have even worked on the WebRTC real-time-communications protocol and contributed their improvements to the source code for that protocol. This is to make things work smoothly for one-user many-device operation, something that could apply to a lot of videocall apps based on this technology.

Both companies will need to work towards supporting group videocalls on their desktop software as well as on the primary mobile devices. This is more so as the desktop computing environment shows appeal towards multiparty videocalls.

As well, the WhatsApp and Signal efforts are about implementing voice and videocalls in a multiple-device sense where there is a primary device operated by the user. This may legitimise other similar use cases like automotive or group-videophone (connected-TV / set-top device) use cases.

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Zoom even makes it easier to deal with Zoombombing incidents

Article

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Zoom to give more control to meeting hosts

How to stop a Zoombombing | Lifehacker

From the horse’s mouth

Zoom

3 New Ways We’re Combatting Meeting Disruptions (Blog Post)

My Comments

During the COVID-19 pandemic causing us to work or study from home, we have been seeing increased use of videoconferencing platforms like Zoom.

It has led to the convergence of business and personal use of popular multiparty videoconferencing platforms; be it business platforms of the Zoom and Microsoft Teams ilk serving personal, social and community needs; or personal platforms like Skype and WhatsApp being used for business use. This is more so with small businesses, community organisations and the like who don’t have their own IT team to manage this software. The software developers even support this convergence through adding “personal and social” features to business users that also gain free social-user tiers or adding business features to personal platforms.

But this has brought along its fair share of miscreants. A key example of this is “Zoombombing” where these miscreants join a Zoom meeting in order to disrupt it. This manifests in disruptive comments being put in to the meeting or at worst all sorts of filth unfit for the office or family home appearing on our screens. Infact there have been a significant number of high-profile Zoom virtual events disrupted that way and a significant number of governments have encompassed this phenomenon as part of raising questions about videoconferencing platform security.

This has been facilitated by Zoom and similar business videoconferencing platforms allowing people to join a videoconference by clicking on a meeting-specific URL This is compared to Skype, Viber, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and similar personal videoconferencing platforms operating on an in-platform invitation protocol when joining these meetings.

But these Weblinks bave been posted on the Social Web for every man and his dog to see. There have been some online forums that have been hurriedly set up for people to solicit others to disrupt online meetings.

Zoom recently took action by requiring the use of meeting passwords and waiting-room setups and operating with that by default. As well meeting hosts and participants have been encourage not to place meeting URLs and passwords on any part of the Web open to the public. Rather they are to send the link via email or instant messaging. As well, they are encouraged to send the password under separate cover.

They also have the ability to lock the meeting so no further attendees can come in, which is good if the meeting is based around known attendees. There is also the ability for the host to control resource-sharing and remote-control functionality that Zoom offers. Let’s not forget that they also added meeting-wide end-to-end encryption for increasingly-secure meetings.

But Zoom has taken further action by offering meeting hosts more tools to control their meeting, a feature available to all client software and to all user classes whether free or paid.

There is the ability for the Zoom meeting host to pause the meeting. Once this is invoked, no activity can take place during the meeting including in any breakout rooms that the meeting has spawned. They also have the ability to report the meeting to Zoom’s platform=wide security team and to selectively enable each meeting feature. They can also report users to Zoom’s platform security team, which allows them to file the report and give the disruptive user the royal order of the boot from that meeting.

Another feature that has been introduced thanks to the “join by URL” method that Zoom supports is for meeting hosts to be alerted if their meeting is at risk of disruption. Zoom facilitates this using a Webcrawler that hunts for meeting URLs on the public Web and alerts the meeting host if their meeting’s URL is posted there such as being on the Social Web. Here, they are given the opportunity to change the URL to deflect any potential Zoombomb attempts.

But this year has become a key year as far as multiparty videoconferencing is concerned due to our reliance on it. Here, it may be about seeing less differentiation between business-use and personal-use platforms or the definition of a basic feature set that these videoconferencing platforms are meant to have with secure private operation being part of that definition.

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Zoom to introduce end-to-end encryption

Articles

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Zoom to provide end-to-end encryption for those video conferences

Zoom end-to-end encryption is finally rolling out next week | Android Authority

Zoom to preview free end-to-end encryption for meetings | ITNews

Zoom Is Adding End-To-End Encryption to Your Endless Meetings | Gizmodo

Zoom finally rolls out end-to-end encryption, but you have to enable it | Mashable

From the horse’s mouth

Zoom

Zoom Rolling Out End-to-End Encryption Offering (Blog Post)

My Comments

Since the COVID-19 coronavirus plague had us housebound even for work or school, we have ended up using videoconferencing platforms more frequently for work, school and social life. The most popular of these platforms ended up being Zoom which effectively became a generic trademark for multiparty videoconferencing.

But the computer press and consumer-privacy regulators identified that most of these videoconferencing platforms had security and user-privacy / company-confidentiality weaknesses. One of these that has beset Zoom was the lack of end-to-end encryption for multiparty videocalls. This ended up being a key issue due to most of us ending using these platforms more frequently and the increased use of Zoom and similar platforms for medical and legal telexonsultations.

Now Zoom, as part of its recent Zoomtopia feature-launch multiparty videoconference, has launched a number of new features for their platform. These include virtual participant layouts similar to what Microsoft Teams is offering.

But the important one here is to facilitate end-to-end encryption during multiparty videoconferences. This will be available across all of Zoom’s user base, whether free or paid. For the first 30 days from next week, it will be a technical preview so they can know of any bugs in the system.

The end-to-end encryption is based around the meeting host rather than Zoom generating the keypairs for the encryption protocol, which would occur as a videoconference is started and as users come on board. It is a feature that Zoom end-users would need to enable at account level and also activate for each meeting they wish to keep secure. That is different from WhatsApp where end-to-end encryption occurs by default and in a hands-off manner.

At the moment, updated native Zoom clients will support the end-to-end encryption – you won’t have support for it on Zoom Web experiences or third-party devices and services that work with Zoom like the smart displays or Facebook’s Portal TV videophone. This situation will be revised as Zoom releases newer APIs and software that answers thsi need.

If a meeting is operating with end-to-end encryption, there will be a green shield with a lock symbol in the upper left corner to indicate that this is the case. They can click on the icon to bring up a verification code and have that confirmed by the meeting host reading it out loud.

Free users will be required to use SMS-based verification when they set up their account for end-to-end encryption. This is a similar user experience to what a lot of online services are doing where there is a mobile phone number as a second factor of authenticity.

At least Zoom is taking steps towards making its multiparty videoconference platform more safe and secure for everyone.

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Facebook Portal TV converts your TV in to a group Zoom videophone

Facebook Portal TV group videophone press picture courtesy of Facebook

Facebook Portal TV

Article

You can now watch Netflix on your Facebook Portal TV | CNet

Netflix Comes to Facebook’s Portal TV Video Device, Along With Zoom | Variety

From the horse’s mouth

Facebook

Bringing Netflix, Zoom, and More Features to Portal (Blog Post)

Bringing Netflix, Zoom and More Features to Portal (Press Release)

Portal TV (Product Page with opportunity to order)

My Comments

Facebook’s Portal TV is a set-top box with built-in Webcam that is part of Facebook’s Portal smart-display platform. The platform has shown an increase in takeup thanks to us staying home due to the COVID-19 coronavirus plague.

This device is acquiring access to more of the video-on-demand services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Sling TV and Showtime. As well, newer Facebook Portal TV devices will come with remote controls that have one-touch access to the video-on-demand services. You may find that if you even bought a replacement remote control for your Portal TV device, it will come with these extra buttons. I see the Facebook Portal TV as an attempt for another of the Silicon Valley big names to have a set-top device based around their core online-services platform and offering the video content services that “every man and his dog” wants.

But the feature that has a strong appeal to me is the Facebook Portal TV turning your TV in to a large-screen group videophone. This initially works with Facebook’s messaging platforms – Messenger and WhatsApp and you have to bind it to your account on either of these services. You can bind the Portal TV to multiple Facebook / Messenger and WhatsApp accounts to make and take calls from these accounts. But it is being extended to Zoom along with some business-grade videoconferencing platforms, with a notable absence of Microsoft’s platforms i.e. Skype and Microsoft Teams which do have a significant user base.

Here, it will legitimise the idea of your household joining in to a long-distance videocall and being able to see the participants on the end of the line on the big screen without squinting. A classic example of this could be Thanksgiving or Christmas and you want to have your family chat with your relatives that are located a long distance away so the distant relatives can be in on the celebrations.

The Portal platform even has the camera and sound self-adjust to follow the action or to encompass more people coming in to view, This is very much a reality as more people crowd in to and join that long-distance videocall. As well, it could be seen as a direction to have video watch parties like what Sling TV is proposing come to your big-screen TV.

The Portal TV set-top box assures users of their privacy by having a hardware switch to enable and disable the camera and microphones. As well, there is a physical camera shutter so the user can mask the camera out. It is also compliant with HDMI-CEC operation thus allowing for one-touch call answering where the TV (and audio peripherals if connected) will come on and select the appropriate input when you answer a Portal videocall. For older people who would benefit from this device, this behaviour means that they only need to press one button on the Portal’s remote to answer that videocall.

What needs to happen is for Google, Amazon, Apple and others to work towards introducing group videophone devices that can work with a regular TV and use the common videoconferencing platforms. This can be through Wehcam accessories that work with existing set-top devices that they have designed and made available or newer set-top devices that have integrated Webcam functionality or support for such accessories. They would have to work with videoconferencing platforms that are popular at work and at home.

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Should videoconference platforms support multiple devices concurrently

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

The idea of a Zoome or similar platform user joining the same videoconferences frp, multiple devices could be considered in some cases

Increasing when we use a videoconferencing platform, we install the client software associated with it on all the computing devices we own. Then we log in to our account associated with that platform so we can join videoconferences from whatever device we have and suits our needs.

But most of these platforms allow a user to use one device at a time to participate in the same videoconference. Zoom extends on this by allowing concurrent use of devices of different types (smartphone, mobile-platform tablet or regular computer) by the same user account on the same conference.

But why support the concurrent use of multiple devices?

There are some use cases where multiple devices used concurrently may come in handy.

Increased user mobility

Dell Inspiron 14 5000 2-in-1 - viewer arrangement at Rydges Melbourne (Locanda)

especially with tablet computers and 2-in-1s located elsewhere

One of these is to assure a high level of mobility while participating in a videoconference. This may be about moving between a smartphone that is in your hand and a tablet or laptop that is at a particular location like your office.

It can also be about joining the same videoconference from other devices that are bound to the same account. This could be about avoiding multiple people crowding around one computing device to participate in a videoconference from their location, which can lead to user discomfort or too many people appearing in one small screen in a “tile-up” view of a multiparty videoconference. Or it can be about some people participating in a videoconference from an appropriate room like a lounge area or den.

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 tablet

like in a kitchen with this Lenovo Yoga Tab Android tablet

Similarly, one or more users at the same location may want to simply participate in the videoconference in a passive way but not be in the presence of others who are actively participating in the same videoconference. This may simply be to monitor the call as it takes place without the others knowing. Or it could be to engage in another activity like preparing food in the kitchen while following the videocall.

As far as devices go, there may be the desire to use a combination of devices that have particular attributes to get the most out of the videocall. For example, it could be about spreading a large videoconference across multiple screens such as having a concurrent “tile-up” view, active speaker and supporting media across three screens.

Or a smartphone could be used for audio-only participation so you can have the comfort of a handheld device while you see the participants and are seen by them on a tablet or regular computer. As well, some users may operate two regular computers like a desktop or large laptop computer along with a secondary laptop or 2-in-1 computer.

Support for other device types by videoconferencing platforms

.. or a smart display like this Google-powered Lenovo smart display

Another key trend is for videoconferencing platforms to support devices that aren’t running desktop-platform or mobile-platform operating systems.

This is exemplified by Zoom providing support for popular smart-display platforms like Amazon Echo Show or Google Smart Display. It is although some of the voice-assistant platforms that offer smart displays do support videocall functionality on platforms own by the voice-assistant platform’s developer or one or more other companies they are partnering with.

Or Google providing streaming-vision support for a Google Meet videoconference to a large-screen TV via Chromecast. It is something that could reinvigorate videoconferencing on smart-TV / set-top box platforms, something I stand for so many people like a whole family or household can participate in a videoconference from one end. This is once factors like accessory Webcams, 10-foot “lean-back” user interfaces and the like are worked out.

It can also extend to the idea of voice-assistant platforms extending this to co-opting a smart speaker and a device equipped with a screen and camera to facilitate a videoconference.  This could be either with you hearing the videoconference via the smart speaker or the display device’s audio subsystem.

What can be done to make this secure for small accounts?

There can be security and privacy issues with this kind of setup with people away from the premises but operating the same account being able to join in a videoconference uninvited. Similarly, a lot of videoconferencing platforms who offer a service especially to consumers may prefer to offer this feature as part of their paid “business-class” service packages.

One way to make this kind of participation secure for a small account would be to use logical-network verification. This is to make sure that all devices are behind the same logical network (subnet) if there is a want for multiple devices to participate from the same account and in the same videoconference. It may not work well with devices having their own modem such as smartphones, tablets or laptops directly connected to mobile broadband or people plugging USB mobile-broadband modems in to their computers. Similarly, it may not work with public-access or guest-access networks that are properly configured to avoid devices discovering each other on the same network.

Similarly, device-level authentication, which could facilitate password-free login can also be used to authenticate the actual devices operated by an account. A business rule could exist to place a limit on the number of devices of any class but operated by the same consumer account able to concurrently join a videoconference at any one time. This could realistically be taken to five devices allowing for the fact that a couple or family may prefer to operate the same account across all the devices owned by the the members of that group, rather than have members maintain individual accounts just bound .

Conclusion

The idea of allowing concurrent multiple-device support for single accounts in a videoconference platform when it comes to videoconference participation is worth considering. This can be about increased mobility or user comfort or to cater towards the use of newer device types in the context of videoconferencing.

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Zoom now extends to popular smart-display platforms

Articles

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Zoom video conferences will soon be able to take place on smart displays

Zoom Meetings Coming Soon to Smart Displays | Droid Life

Zoom video calls come to smart displays from Google, Amazon, and Facebook | Android Authority

Zoom expands to every major smart display as coronavirus keeps us home | CNet

From the borse’s mouth

Zoom

Zoom Expands to Smart Displays at Home (Blog Post)

My Comments

Amazon Echo Show in kitchen press picture courtesy of Amazon

.. like the Amazon Echo Show

The COVID-19 coronavirus plague is increasing our use of Zoom as a multiparty videoconferencing platform especially for social and community purposes. This is thanks to measures in place to encourage social distancing and reduce travel to curb the spread of this virus. Zoom’s trademark for this service even ended up as a generic trademark word for a any multiparty videoconference just like one often referred to a common ballpoint pen as a biro.

But Zoom is primarily offered on most regular-computer and mobile-device platforms like Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android. This is because these devices have integrated or accessory Webcams supported by their operating system and can take on software from third-party developers.

JBL Link VIew Press image courtesy of Harman International

… or Google-Assistant devices like this JBL Link View smart display

Recently Zoom tried out the idea of a dedicated videoconferencing appliance in the form of a 27” group videophone that can also be a display screen for a computer, TV set-top box or similar video peripheral. It is similar to previous efforts by smart-TV and video-peripheral vendors to provide Skype support if the device is equipped with an expensive accessory Webcam offered by the manufacturer.

But Zoom took a better step to partner with Google, Amazon and Facebook to integrate their platform in to the Amazon Echo Show smart displays, Facebook Portal smart display and smart displays running the Google Assistant (Home) platform. Here, these devices have the hardware that is needed to make or take videocalls i.e. a camera, microphone, screen and speakers. As well, the three vendors are more supportive of programming these devices to take on additional functionality.

These devices have some sort of videophone functionality built in to them through support for some other videoconference platforms: Skype and Amazon’s IP-telephony platform in the case of Amazon’s Echo Show devices; Google’s Duo and Meet in the case of Google-powered devices; and Facebook Messenger with its Rooms function as well as GoToMeeting, BlueJeans and WebEx in the case of the Facebook Portal. The addition of Zoom doesn’t displace the platform vendor’s own products or products the vendor has already licensed from other partners. As well, it recognises that different people and organisations tend to prefer working with particular videoconference platforms over others.

The Zoom software is engineered to take advantage of what the platforms offer including tying in with the platform’s native calendar function if you have linked your calendar to it, or joining a videoconference at your voice command. In the case of the Facebook device, you can tap the screen to join a meeting. All classes of Zoom account can be bound to these devices so you can use the account paid for by your work or school or a personal one you set up for free for social use.

This function will start to appear on most Facebook Portal devices in September then roll out across all the other smart-display platforms over October and November.

But why allow Zoom and similar videoconferences on a smart display or similar appliance? One reason is to have one device dedicated to the videoconference while you use another device to take notes or read supporting material for business, education or religion use cases. It may also be about the desire for an “appliance-simple” approach for making and taking videocalls, something that may be desired for older users who may find the process of creating or joining a multiparty videoconference daunting. As well, there is the encouragement to use an endpoint device that fits in with where it will be used such as the small smart displays that are typically installed in a kitchen or similar room.

What need to eventually happen is for Zoom and similar multiparty videoconferencing platforms to be part of connected-TV / set-top box platforms typically used for viewing Netflix or similar video-on-demand services on the big-screen TV. This is as long as the TV or set-top box can work with an accessory Webcam. As well, the device has to support multiple videoconferencing platforms, especially the common ones; while each platform has to offer a user interface suitable for 10-foot “lean-back” operation.

Here, such implementations, when done right, can be about the use of a big-screen TV as a group videophone for situations where the whole household participates in a videoconference like the many Zoom-based family or community video “catch-ups”.

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A call to attention now exists regarding videoconferencing platform security

Article

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

A call to action is now taking place regarding the data security and user privacy of video conferencing platforms

Privacy watchdogs urge videoconferencing services to boost privacy protections | We Live Security

From the horse’s mouth

Officer Of The Privacy Commissioner Of Canada

Joint statement on global privacy expectations of Video Teleconferencing companies (English / Français)

Press Release (English, Français)

Office Of The Australian Information Commissioner

Global privacy expectations of video teleconference providers – with open letter

Federal Data Protection And Information Commissioner (Switzerland)

Audio And Video Conferencing Systems – Privacy Resource factsheet (English, Français, Deutsch, Italiano)

Open Letter (PDF)

Information Commissioner’s Office (United Kingdom)

Global privacy expectations of video teleconference providers

Open Letter (PDF)

My Comments

Thanks to the COVID-19 coronavirus plague, we are making increased use of various videoconferencing platforms for our work, education, healthcare, religious and social reasons.

This has been facilitated through the use of applications like Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams and HouseParty. It also includes “over-the-top” text-chat and Internet-telephony apps like Apple’s Facetime, Facebook’s Messenger, WhatsApp and Viber for this kind of communication, thanks to them opening up or having established multi-party audio/video conferencing or “party-line” communications facilities.

Security issues have been raised by various experts in the field about these platforms with some finding that there are platforms that aren’t fit for purpose in today’s use cases thanks to gaping holes in the platform’s security and privacy setup. In some cases, the software hasn’t been maintained in a manner as to prevent security risks taking place.

As well, there have been some high-profile “Zoombombing” attacks on video conferences in recent times. This is where inappropriate, usually pornographic, images have been thrown up in to these video conferences to embarrass the participants with one of these occurring during a court hearing and one disrupting an Australian open forum about reenergising tourism.

This has led to the public data-protection and privacy authorities in Australia, Canada, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Switzerland and the United Kingdom writing an open letter to Microsoft, Cisco, Zoom, HouseParty and Google addressing these issues. I also see this relevant to any company who is running a text-based “chat” or similar service that offers group-chatting or party-line functionality or adapts their IP-based one-to-one audio/video telephony platform for multi-party calls.

Some of these issues are very similar to what has been raised over the last 10 years thanks to an increase in our use of online services and cloud computing in our daily lives.This included data security under a highly-mobile computing environment with a heterogeny of computing devices and online services; along with the issue of data sovereignty in a globalised business world.

One of the key issues is data security. This is about having proper data-security safeguards in place such as end-to-end encryption for communications traffic; improved access control like strong passwords, two-factor authentication or modern device-based authentication approaches like device PINs and biometrics.

There will also be the requirement to factor in handling of sensitive data like telehealth appointments between medical/allied-health specialists and their patients. Similarly data security in the context of videoconferencing will also encompass the management of a platform’s abilities to share files, Weblinks, secondary screens and other media beyond the video-audio feed.

As well, a “secure by design and default” approach should prohibit the ability to share resources including screenviews unless the person managing the videoconference gives the go-ahead for the person offering the resource. If there is a resource-preview mechanism, the previews should only be available to the person in charge of the video conference.

Another key issue is user privacy including business confidentiality. There will be a requirement for a videoconferencing platform to have “privacy by design and default”. It is similar to the core data-security operating principle of least privilege. It encompasses strong default access controls along with features like announcing new participants when they join a multi-party video conference; use of waiting rooms, muting the microphone and camera when you join a video conference with you having to deliberately enable them to have your voice and video part of the conference; an option to blur out backgrounds or use substitute backgrounds; use of substitute still images like account avatars in lieu of a video feed when the camera is muted; and the like.

There will also be a requirement to allow businesses to comply with user-privacy obligations like enabling them to seek users’ express consent before participating. It also includes a requirement for the platform to minimise the capture of data to what is necessary to provide the service. That may include things like limiting unnecessary synchronsing of contact lists for example.

Another issue is for the platforms to to “know their audience” or know what kind of users are using their platform. This is for them to properly provide these services in a privacy-focused way. It applies especially to use of the platform by children and vulnerable user groups; or where the platform is being used in a sensitive use setting like education, health or religion.

As well it encompasses where a videoconferencing platform is used or has its data handled within a jurisdiction that doesn’t respect fundamental human rights and civil liberties. This risk will increase more as countries succumb to populist rule and strongman politics and they forget the idea of these rights. In this case, participants face an increased exposure to various risks associated with these jurisdictions especially if the conversation is about a controversial topic or activity or they are a member of a people group targeted by the oppressive regime.

Another issue being raised is transparency and fairness. Here this is about what data is being collected by the platform, how it is being used, whom it is shared with including the jurisdictions they are based in along with why it is being collected. It doesn’t matter whether it is important or not. The transparency about data use within the platform also affects what happens whenever the platform is evolved and the kind of impact any change would have.

The last point is to provide each of the end-users effective control over their experience with the videoconferencing platforms. Here, an organisation or user group may determine that a particular videoconferencing platform like Zoom or Skype is the order of the day for their needs. But the users need to be able to know whether location data is being collected or whether the videoconference is tracking their engagement, or whether it is being recorded or transcribed.

I would add to this letter the issue of the platform’s user-friendliness from provisioning new users through all stages of establishing and managing a videoconference. This is of concern with videoconference platforms being used by young children or older-generation people who have had limited exposure to newer technologies. It also includes efforts to make the platform accessible to all abilities.

This is relevant to the security and user privacy of a videoconferencing platform due to simplifying the ability for the videoconference hosts and participants to maintain effective control of their experience. Here, if a platform’s user interface is difficult to use safely. videoconference hosts and participants will end up opting for insecure setups this making themselves vulnerable.

For example, consistent and less-confusing function icons or colours would be required for the software’s controls; along with proper standardised  “mapping” of controls on hardware devices to particular functions. Or there could be a user-interface option that always exposes the essential call-management controls at the bottom of the user’s screen during a videocall.

This issue has come to my mind due to regularly participating in a Skype videoconference session with my church’s Bible-study group. Most of the members of that group were of older generations who weren’t necessarily technology-literate. Here, I have had to explain what icons to click or tap on to enable the camera or microphone during the videoconference and even was starting it earlier to “walk” participants through using Skype. Here, it would be about calling out buttons on the screen that have particular icons for particular functions like enabling the camera or microphone or selecting the front or back camera on their device.

At least the public-service efforts have come about to raise the consistent security and privacy problems associated with the increased use of videoconferencing software.

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Why use headphones during that Zoom or Skype video conference?

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Headphones and earphones can improve the sound quality during that Zoom video call

Increasingly most of you are taking part in a multi-party videoconference using Zoom, Skype or similar platforms as part of working or learning from home or keeping in the loop with distant relatives and friends. This has been driven by necessity due to the COVID-19 coronavirus plague and the requirement to stay home to limit the spread of this bug.

But you may find that your correspondents’ audio has that unnecessary echo or reverberation that can make the videocall sound fatiguing and awful. The excessive noise from the reverberation or echo may cause you also to speak louder as a means of dealing with a poor signal-to-noise ratio. As well it can also make a participant harder to understand especially if they have a strong accent that doesn’t cope well with poor signal quality.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth wireless headset

… no matter the kind of headset you use like this JBL Bluetooth headset

This is caused due to latency imposed by the different home-network and Internet connections each party uses and the fact that the sound and vision are being sent around as data packets. As well, most of the parties in the videoconference will typically be using a microphone and set of speakers integrated in or connected to the device for the sound.

Here, the reverberation or echo is heard due to your voice coming out of the participants’ devices’ speakers at a later time thanks to the videoconference setup with its limitations. It can also be magnified if someone is using a speaker setup that is very loud like most desktop speakers or a hi-fi system used as audio output for your computer.

By using headphones during that video conference if you are the only person calling in to the videoconference from your endpoint, you are effectively minimising the echo and reverberation. This is because when a person uses headphones for the videocall, the sound from the other parties is being “funneled” through the headphones exclusively to the device’s user, not likely to be picked up by their device’s microphone.

You will also find that you can hear your participants more easily when you use headphones. This is due to the headphone’s speakers located very close to your ear therefore leading to very minimal audio leakage that can cause further reverberation or echo. Those of you who use active-noise-cancelling headphones may also be at an advantage due to reducing fan or air-conditioning hum interfering with what your callers are saying, allowing you to concentrate better.

Here, any headphones or headset would do, whether they be in-ear, on-ear or over-ear types; or whether they are a wired or wireless setup. For example, if you are using a smartphone or tablet and you have its supplied in-ear wired headset, you can get by with it. Or a pair of good Bluetooth headphones may even do the job better.

This won’t be of use for a group situation where many people like a family or household are joining the videocall from the one device at the one location. It is because they want to talk to the rest of the videoconference as if they are one person. This situation would require the use of the device’s loudspeakers and microphone to be of value.

When you alone are participating in that multi-party videocall and you want to get the best out of it, your headphones may serve you better through that call.

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Amazon positions Alexa as the landline phone replacement

Articles Amazon Echo Show in kitchen press picture courtesy of Amazon

Echo Show

Amazon officially unveils touchscreen Echo Show | The Verge

Amazon launches Echo Show smart speaker with touchscreen and video calling | The Guardian

Alexa Calling And Messaging

Amazon now lets you make hands-free calls on all Alexa devices | Mashable

Amazon enables free calls and messages on all Echo devices with Alexa Calling | TechCrunch

From the horse’s mouth

Amazon

Product Pages

Echo Show

Alexa Calling And Messaging

My Comments

Amazon is treading in hot water here by taking the Alexa voice-driven home assistant platform further as an IP-telephony platform.

This has come about with the arrival of the Echo Show videophone which is equipped with a 7” colour LCD touchscreen. For its audio, it is equipped with a pair of Dolby-optimised speakers and an eight-microphone array.

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

The Amazon Echo with the Alexa platform now expected to be an IP telephone

The video functionality allows it to be an IP videophone that is part of the Alexa Calling And Messaging IP-telephony platform but be able to show Daily Flash news reports which I would see as being similar to those “newsbreaks” you see on TV. There is also the ability to run YouTube videos including those many cat videos, but Amazon is adding to the Alexa API the ability for any of the Skills to show visual information on the screen when you summon her. It can also show vision from network security cameras that are compatible with the Amazon Alexa ecosystem.

But the driver feature behind this device is that Alexa platform is running its own IP-telephony system that is driven by your voice. Here, you can place free calls or send voice messages to others who have any Amazon Echo device or the Alexa iOS or Android mobile-platform app, with the ability to place videocalls between Amazon Echo Show devices. There is a “Drop In” functionality where you can speak through to another Alexa-platform subscriber during a time window that the subscriber specifies without the subscriber doing anything to answer the call.

Social networks and mobile messaging

Amazon to become part of this crowded space of IP-messaging and social networking platforms

This service is another IP telephony platform that is competing with Skype, Viber, Facebook Messenger, Apple iMessage/Facetime and others. Here, I see this as the start of a highly-crowded field where your smartphone will end up with many IP-telephony apps and you will have to decide which one to use to call your friends.

Some of the computer press also see it as a virtual landline telephone which may be seen as superfluous in the iPhone age. But there is a reality where these services are seen as a “catch-all” connection for a household or business. Similarly, a significant number of the older generation of telephone users place importance on these services due to these people relying on them for most of their lives. I also see it as being similar to various “smart landline telephone” efforts like the Telstra T-Hub and the Archos 35 Smart Home Phone, something that telcos are pushing as part of offering multiple-play consumer telecommunications services.

Using the common household phone

But do we expect Amazon Echo to serve a similar role to the traditional household telephone

What Amazon could do is either use one of the established over-the-top IP-telephony services for their Alexa Calling And Messaging service and say that it is powered by that platform. Or they could offer “gateway functionality” to one or more of these platforms so users can call people who are on these platforms for free. It would allow for a consolidated user experience for people who have contacts existing across one or more platforms. Similarly, Amazon could provide an on-ramp that telcos can exploit to allow Alexa users to place calls to landline or mobile telephony users including leaving messages on the telephony-service users’ voicemail services.

It is showing that a crowded marketplace is starting to exist for over-the-top IP-telephony services with customers having to place themselves on multiple IP-telephony platforms to be able to be reached in this manner.

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