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Online architecture events attacked with racism and obscene images

Shutterstock zoom meeting
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Three online architecture events have been disrupted in recent days with vandalism, racist abuse and child pornography

A talk by Italian architect Pier Paolo Tamburelli, part of the Architecture Foundation’s 100 Day Studio series of lectures, was last month interrupted by inappropriate drawing on the screen.

Shortly afterwards, another event in the same series, this time by Resolve Collective, was marred by racist comments in a chat box and shouting into microphones. The meeting was stopped and rescheduled.

Then last Wednesday, 6 May, a talk given by University of Brighton senior lecturer Duncan Baker-Brown, hosted by the Architectural Association, had to be temporarily halted when indecent images involving children appeared.

All three meetings were held using the group video call platform Zoom, which has announced extra security measures this month after a number of headlines about attacks by hackers.

Baker-Brown said a number of attendees were very upset by the obscene images shown during his talk, which centred on the need for architects to respond to an age of emergency.

’People were in tears,’ he said. ’I had a few text messages afterwards and people were very distraught.

’Basically I lost control of the slides I was showing, my screen went blank and then the most disgusting film appeared. I closed my screen down immediately. The hosts phoned me and after 10 minutes they had resolved the issue so we could continue.’

Almost half the attendees failed to return for the restart, however, with the number of people following the event dropping from about 100 to 55.

Baker-Brown said he would continue to give lectures by Zoom and was determined that the hackers wouldn’t win. But he called for tighter control.

’I don’t know if they had a problem with me, a problem with public debate, or a problem with Zoom,’ he said of the disrupters. ‘There is a place for technology and radical ways of working but security has to be improved.’

The AA said pastoral care and counselling had been made available for those who needed it following the incident.

‘Immediately following the event, we had meetings with our IT and AV departments to review security options on a daily basis,’ added AA outreach associate Matthew Roberts.

’We also discussed suggestions from other institutions (see below) and now have enhanced security set up on all our scheduled public events on Zoom. We have reported the incident to Zoom and the authorities.’

Roberts urged everyone delivering lectures via digital platforms to be ‘extremely cautious’.

We are entering a hyper-digital era where violence takes different forms

He said: ‘We are entering a hyper-digital era where violence takes different forms and we need to protect ourselves and our communities from it. Due to the fast-changing nature of these threats, it is vital that as a community we stay up to date with best security practice. Keep informed and up-to-date, and share the dangers with your community overall so that everyone is aware.’ 

Architecture Foundation director Ellis Woodman apologised to those affected by the incidents during his organisation’s events and said the foundation had added extra security measures.

’The advice was to disable the function allowing participants to share their screens; to minimise the ability to write in the chat box to all participants; to introduce a waiting room so we can monitor people who come in; and people are no longer able to unmute themselves.

‘It hasn’t recurred since then and I’m hopeful we’ve covered the bases.’

Links to online AF meetings are still being sent out by newsletter and social media, although these could be restricted to known recipients on a closed mailing list if further attacks take place. The body could also consider using a different video call platform if it felt that became necessary.

Woodman said online lectures had an important role to play during the period of intense social distancing due to Covid-19. 

He said: ‘We were very concious that our audience would be isolated and the discourse around architecture would be closed down. The AF brings people together. Friends have seen each other at these online events. Also everyone is wondering about the consequences of this virus for buildings and it would be negligent of us to put our feet up for a year.’

Hacking aside, the AF talks had been successful, he said.

‘It has been exciting to discover a global audience. We’ve had up to 500 people watching events live and double that if you include those catching up on YouTube. We will do about 250 events in 100 days. The technology allows us to make events free, to invite people without the restrictions of an auditorium and to allow some parents to engage who otherwise couldn’t come to an event. We can also invite people to talk from China or Australia, without the costs or carbon footprint otherwise involved.’

Resolve Collective head of design Akil Scafe-Smith said the attack was ’a timely reminder that as we are all largely forced into digital refuge, the internet is still a landscape that can both equalise and divide’.

He added: ’It is a space where vulnerabilities and pre-existing social inequities are easily exaggerated and weaponised. This should come as a lesson of security not in just the proliferation of digital talks/events but also to any attempted project of outreach and engagement with minority groups in particular during this time.’

Zoom has been contacted for comment.

See here for government advice about staying safe online during the lockdown to fight Covid-19.

Tips for enhancing security for public events held on Zoom

In settings (navigate to ‘In meeting’):

  • Turn off participation by phone
  • Turn off chat, private chat, file transfer
  • Enable co-host
  • Disable screen share, 
  • Turn off: annotation, whiteboard, remote control, allow removed participants to rejoin, allow participants to rename themselves

In the event itself:

  • You, as the host, will have to give anyone presenting the status of co-host, so that only they will be able to share their screen
  • Under ‘Participants’, mute all participants
  • Under the ‘More’ drop-down menu, turn off the option for participants to unmute themselves

    Source: Architectural Association, following advice received after its hack
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