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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Disturbances of online courses: “Zoombombing” in Berlin universities – Berlin

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In an online course, porn is suddenly imported. Or a digital conference is interrupted with right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic content. These incidents, usually from anonymous sources, are called “zoombombing” and have also occurred at online events at universities in Berlin since the start of the pandemic.

This stems from a response from the scientific administration to a request from left-wing parliamentarians Niklas Schrader and Tobias Schulze. The answer refers to “isolated” interruptions in four universities: the Free University, the Humboldt University, the Technical University and the Faculty of Economics and Law (HWR).

At least 13 incidents

A total of 13 incidents at TU, FU and HWR are listed. This includes public events such as a consultation hour for the UT student advisory, which was interrupted by “indecent exposure.” Other incidents refer to seminars and tutorials. For example, during an online law course at the Free University, unknown participants joined the seminar multiple times to insult individual students.

In addition, there are disturbances in the “single digit range” in the HU, it is said. At least once, for example, a public access online session of the Academic Senate was hacked with pornographic content, and the Tagesspiegel was also connected. The session in question was quickly interrupted and restarted after a short period of time.

International IP addresses as sources

The phenomenon is not limited to the universities of Berlin. There are signs of such disorders in universities and many other institutions around the world. In Berlin it is now said that the attackers are essentially two groups. International IP addresses were identified as sources, especially at public events, so it is very likely that they are not members of the university.

In the other group, on the other hand, the students from the interrupted events are likely to have been at least involved, since the information from the meeting was not publicly accessible.

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There have recently been discussions that the FU continues to rely on the Webex video conferencing system, despite the fact that the Berlin data protection officer has put a red light on the system. Are “Zoombombings” another sign that universities are too lax with the corresponding software?

Are there alternative solutions?

Universities point out that all common video conferencing systems like Zoom, Webex, or Microsoft Teams are red-lighted, and large-scale online teaching cannot be mastered with workarounds. “As far as we know, there are no software systems that, on the one hand, meet our requirements in terms of stability, scalability, and performance, and, second, meet the data protection requirements for courses, and, third, prevent effectively ‘bombing'”, says TU Vice President Hans-Ulrich Heiss. In fact, many other institutions also use the mentioned systems, such as the Berlin Senate and the House of Representatives.

According to Heiss, the most effective countermeasure would be for everyone to have to authenticate individually when accessing a Zoom event: “But we can’t do that because of data protection requirements.” which represents another access control option. Employees are cautioned that announcing events on social media increases the risk of disruption. More training is in the works.


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