Whose Zooming Who? Planning Board Gets a Lesson in Ups and Downs of Zoom Meetings

The Planning Board can rarely be described as sexy deliberations, but for a short window of time during last Tuesday’s first-ever Zoom meeting of the Board, the point could have been successfully argued.

In what was otherwise a rather successful first online public meeting for the Planning Board Tuesday, the meeting got a little wide-eyed for about 10 or 20 seconds – maybe longer – when hard-core pornography suddenly blasted across everyone’s screens complete with all of the accompany sounds.

“This is incredibly inappropriate,” said Planner Shane O’Brien over the increasingly louder inappropriate sounds and sights.

“We got hacked!” yelled one member. “I’ve read about this stuff. I can’t believe it happened here.”

The screams and yells of disbelief echoed for some time before everyone got back on track.

It was a jolt, no doubt.

“Can we make sure to edit that out if this is going to be re-broadcast on cable TV,” said Member Leo Pizzano.

At the end of the meeting, O’Brien – who led the meeting, which was successful for two hours minus the 25 second interlude – apologized and recognized it’s a new technology.

“It’s a process that is new and not perfect,” he said. “We apologize for what happened and are working on it so the cable broadcast will be edited. With any public meeting, we deal with the public interfering at times. We’ll continue working on the process as we move forward meeting remotely and we will edit out that situation that occurred.”

The scene has been edited out of the official meeting, but for those tuning in live, it was an example of what can happen to online public meetings if the proper precautions are not taken, said City IT Director Kevin Dorgan.

Dorgan said the Planning Board meeting was done on an account that wasn’t regulated by his department, which is partly why it happened. He said he has investigated it, but there is no telling who actually pulled the prank on the unsuspecting Board. He said two things were done mistakenly, that being putting out an open Zoom link for everyone, and also enabling ‘screen sharing’ for everyone – which is how the pornography video made its way onto everyone’s screen.

He said he has been working hard to make sure online City meetings are protected a little better, and had the Planning Board taken his advice and used his set-up, that wouldn’t have happened. It was, he said, a lesson in how the Internet can at times perform at the lowest common denominator if careful planning isn’t executed.

“This has happened to quite a few people in the last several weeks as people move to online meetings,” he said. “It happened to the U.S. Congress. I believe they got Zoom-bombed. We have heard of other cities and other City meetings getting interrupted by organized protests. That’s why we were putting so much work into this beforehand. That Planning Board meeting, though, was completely ad hoc and done separately from what we’ve worked on in the City’s IT Department.”

He added, “People are bored. People are hunting down open Zoom meetings and doing precisely this. They don’t have anything else to do and consider it funny. There’s nothing you can do when an open link is put out there and someone joins the meeting pretending to be innocuous and then suddenly gives everyone an earful, or in this case, an eye full.”

Dorgan said they have produced a couple of School Committee meetings so far, and are looking forward to the first Zoning Board meeting on Tuesday night (beyond Independent deadlines). Those will be official productions and there will be precautions taken to try to keep things monitored well. They have also run some practice sessions with the City Council, but that body hasn’t yet scheduled any meetings to date.

The Zoning Board meeting will have full audio and video of the members. However, there will not be video of the public tuning in, and there will be a screening process for anyone that wants to make a comment or ask a question.

Dorgan will fully control the microphone and video as well so if anything does happen, it can be cut off instantly.

“What happened with the Planning Board won’t be possible with what I’ve set up and will look more professional – like a TV production,” he said.

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