‘Zoombombing’ with racial slur disrupts Royalton Planning Commission meeting

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/16/2021 11:10:49 PM
Modified: 2/16/2021 11:10:48 PM

ROYALTON — The town Planning Commission was discussing designs for murals for a railroad underpass in South Royalton earlier this month during a meeting held on Zoom when a voice popped up that hadn’t been heard before.

To whom that voice belonged is unclear, but the person uttered a profanity and a racial slur, and the verb of the short sentence was “hate.”

“Everybody just got quiet,” Geo Honigford, a member of the Planning Commission, said Tuesday. Another board member, who was well-versed in the ways of Zoom, the online platform that has carried the bulk of government meetings during the pandemic, quickly muted the unseen speaker.

The experience left people in the Feb. 2 meeting shaken, but they continued with their discussion of the two finalists for the proposed mural. About 25 people were attending virtually, and the commission member who muted the speaker made it so that anyone seeking to speak had to ask permission, Stuart Levasseur, the commission’s chairman said Tuesday.

“That was really all there was to it,” he said.

What happened is called ‘Zoombombing,’ and it has been a feature of the pandemic. Starting last March, law enforcement agencies have warned public officials, universities, schools and any other organizations forced to rely on videoconferencing during the coronavirus lockdown that “bombing” or “raiding” of online meetings by people seeking to disrupt them or to spread hateful messages would become more commonplace.

The Boston office of the FBI reported on March 30 that two Massachusetts schools had been Zoombombed, and that in one case the raider “was visible on the video camera and displayed a swastika tattoo.”

Vermont State Police put out a set of recommendations for families to follow as they planned Thanksgiving Day virtual meetings. Those included setting up a password for the meeting, disabling a function that allows participants to join the meeting before the host, setting up a “waiting room” that allows the host to control who enters the meeting, and allowing only authenticated users to join a meeting.

And Zoom has also issued a “security white paper” that outlines measures users can take to keep their meetings safe from intrusions.

While the FBI urges people who have been “the victim of a teleconference hijacking” to contact the bureau’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, Levasseur and Honigford said they didn’t see the need to get law enforcement involved.

“I don’t think the level of damage is there to warrant a further investigation,” Levasseur said. Such attacks tend to be random, with Zoombombers, who could live far from the Upper Valley, using bots to find links to open meetings, he said, so the commission’s Feb. 2 meeting was a target of opportunity.

“I don’t know,” Honigford said. “Was a law broken? It was a public meeting. It was shocking, disheartening.” Had Sarah Danly, the quick-thinking commission member who shut the interloper down, not been there it likely would have been even more unsettling. Efforts to reach Danly on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The commission has taken steps to make its meetings more secure, Levasseur said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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