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Is Zoom a safe tool for online dental education?

Everybody seems to be using Zoom. But its security flaws have raised questions across all industries around the world. (Image: Ink Drop/Shutterstock)
By Monique Mehler, Dental Tribune International
April 14, 2020

LEIPZIG, Germany: During the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual meetings, teledentistry and online education have become more important than ever. There are many remote conferencing services from which associations and companies can choose in order to hold events, organise webinars or consult patients. Many seem to have chosen an increasingly popular platform called Zoom Meetings for these purposes. This is the chief product of Zoom Video Communications, which is based in San Jose in California in the US. However, Zoom has received strong criticism for its data collection practices and several other security issues.

At the end of March, multiple articles appeared online that critically examined Zoom’s privacy policy, which allegedly allowed the company to collect information from users’ meetings. This data can range from video transcripts to written conversations shared through the chat feature. According to an assessment by the independent and non-profit member organisation Consumer Reports, “The privacy policy did not prevent Zoom from using that personal information for targeting ads on or off the platform, or for other business purposes.”

An analysis by IT security expert Mike Kuketz showed that Zoom passes on user data to various service providers, not only when users visit the website, but also after they have logged in with their own profile. “Here, everything and anything gets collected in a heartbeat,” wrote the computer scientist, who also works for the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg, in a blog entry. “Against this background, the use of Zoom is strongly discouraged,” he concluded.

Zoom for online dental education

The coronavirus crisis has forced the dental industry to radically change its thinking. Webinars, for example, have always been a popular tool for dentists to conveniently continue their education and earn continuing education (CE) credits from the comfort of their own homes. However, now they are more important than ever, since congresses, meetings and other events cannot take place owing to travel and gathering bans. Currently, professional associations such as the American Dental Association (ADA) and companies like the Israeli company MIS Implants Technologies use Zoom to host their webinars.

In answer to the question by Dental Tribune International asking whether the ADA is aware of the criticism, the association said that it was indeed aware of recent concerns about videoconferencing cybersecurity. The ADA is a large organisation with over 163,000 member dentists and uses a variety of communication tools to support the advancement of the profession and the health of the public they serve. According to the ADA, the selection of the tools it uses is based on a variety of considerations, such as reliability, ease of use for participants, cost to provide the service and appropriateness of security safeguards to the sensitivity of the content. The ADA stresses that it works with its service providers to help ensure users have the best experience possible.

Difference to accredited CE platforms

During the coronavirus pandemic many people are forced to stay at home. (Image: Girts Ragelis/Shutterstock)

Designated CE webinar platforms, like the Dental Tribune Study Club or company e-learning campuses from Straumann, Ivoclar Vivadent, EMS, CURADEN or Henry Schein, run on software such as Adobe Connect, whose privacy policy clearly states how the obtained data is processed. Accredited digital learning solutions like those mentioned provide many advantages in addition to accurate data protection. CE points are accredited after the successful completion of a post-webinar test, and a moderator and technical support are available during the session to provide assistance where needed. On top of that, they feature a webinar archive and a chat facility which gives participants the opportunity to ask the expert questions.

In an interview with Dental Tribune International, lawyer Dr Carsten Ulbricht from Stuttgart in Germany explained that the webinar hosts are obligated to ensure the safety on their end as well in order to protect the viewers. He recommends that a data processing contract should be concluded with Zoom. He added, “The settings should be selected by the administrator so that the data processing is limited to the necessary extent and the conference participants are adequately informed about the data processing on the part of the organising company and Zoom itself.”

As mentioned, Zoom is also useful in dentistry outside of online seminars. Daily, sometimes even multiple times a day, virtual press conferences are held by the World Health Organization in order to update information about the development of COVID-19. The University of Michigan School of Dentistry even uses it as a tool for teledentistry. Patients need to give consent for this interaction. However, it is unclear how Zoom further processes discussions that take place during the examination. In terms of data protection laws, its use is still is highly questionable.

“Just because something is okay under data protection law does not mean that it is data protection-friendly” – Mike Kuketz

Some have banned the use of Zoom

Several days after more and more experts, news outlets and users voiced concerns about its practices, Zoom tightened sections of its privacy policy. In a press release, Zoom’s chief legal officer, Aparna Bawa, stressed that personal data is not being sold and neither is the “data we obtain from your use of our services, including your meetings, for any advertising”. In a company blog post, she went on to say: “We are not changing any of our practices. We are updating our privacy policy to be more clear, explicit, and transparent.”

While the rewrite is significant and provides some improvements, the UK Ministry of Defence, SpaceX and NASA—just to name a few organisations—have banned the use of Zoom in order to protect sensitive information like matters of national security. Consumer Reports also continues to urge caution and has shared tips on how privacy can be protected when participating in Zoom calls. This includes asking the host to turn on a feature that requires participants to provide consent before a recording can begin, to turn off the microphone and/or camera unless one is actually speaking and to choose a different background photograph.

Despite all the security measures that users can implement themselves, Kuketz’s assessment remains the same. “It may be that the use of Zoom is in accordance with data protection laws. But you can only be sure of this when you know all the data flows. But I would like to point out that just because something is okay under data protection law does not mean that it is data protection-friendly. And there is one thing Zoom is certainly not: data protection-friendly,” he concluded.

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