It’s been a month since I wrote “Can Technology Handle the Stress of Coronavirus?,” which I began just after some of the first shutdowns in the United States were announced – some school districts were preparing to go to e-learning and companies had just begun asking employees to work remotely. At the time, we were seeing mere hints of what we might expect, and wondering what would happen when all those students and all those office workers were at home, on the same internet connection, and trying new tools for collaboration and remote work.
What does it look like a month later? (And, you may ask, are you sure it’s only been a month? It feels longer. Trust me, I double-checked). Where are we now? Are all those technology companies we talked about keeping up with demand and delivering as promised?
Let’s start with Zoom since that’s the most notorious. Starting with a surge in usage in China in February, Zoom quickly took the world by storm, jumping to the No. 1 most-downloaded Apple app for a brief period and increasing its downloads by more than 1,200% over a one-month period. But, as we’ve all learned in the technology world, with a great number of users comes a great number of hackers seeking to exploit those users. Unfortunately, Zoom was very exploitable, and nearly as soon as “Zoom” became part of our vocabularies, so did “Zoombombing,” as hackers began infiltrating Zoom meetings with pornography or other inappropriate images. It led to some closer scrutiny of Zoom’s security, revealing that, despite what it advertised, Zoom did not use end-to-end encryption. That was followed by revelations that Zoom shared user data with Facebook, an investigation from the New York Attorney General, four class-action lawsuits, and the discovery that more than half a million Zoom credentials were for sale on the dark web.
Zoom seems to be genuinely working to right these wrongs, most recently adding former Facebook and Yahoo chief security officer Alex Stamos as an outside security consultant after Stamos defended Zoom on Twitter, calling the issues a series of “shallow bugs.” In a Medium post after taking on the role, Stamos noted that “Zoom has gone from being a successful mid-sized enterprise IT company to a critical part of the lives of hundreds of millions in the space of a couple of months. … To successfully scale a video-heavy platform to such a size, with no appreciable downtime and in the space of weeks, is literally unprecedented in the history of the internet.” However, that’s too late for many organizations that banned the use of Zoom, including SpaceX, the German government and the U.S. Senate.
Should you stop using Zoom for happy hours and casual meetings? Not necessarily. Be safe, change your password, check a service like AmIBreached.com to see if your email has been included in a data breach, and use Zoom’s own helpful list of security tips to keep your meetings secure.
Anyway – there’s Zoom. How about the others? Google Meet, which you may know as Hangouts or Hangouts Meet, has thankfully used this crisis to settle on a name. Like Zoom, Meet has in-transit encryption only, and is susceptible to many of the same problems (with similar fixes) – possibly only because its parent company is Google has it been spared some of Zoom’s issues. Google Duo, a lesser-known video calling app that supports smaller meetings, is end-to-end encrypted, although it is limited to 12 participants.
There is something to be said for the big-name tech companies; particularly those with a significant security element to their offerings. Cisco WebEx, which expanded the capabilities of its free offerings into all regions it was available, had just a couple of outages in March and nothing since — until I began researching it for this article.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Sorry, Cisco. But I’m moving on to Microsoft, so it should be back up in a moment.
Microsoft Teams, which has been the primary beneficiary of Zoom’s woes, reported the number of calls made using its videoconferencing software increased 1,000% in March, setting a new record of 2.7 billion meeting minutes held in a single day during that same time period. Teams has also seen a huge surge in education use, with 183,000 “tenants” – which can mean anything from a family group to a school district compiled of hundreds of schools – using the product.
Microsoft did have to implement some restrictions to handle the load on its cloud capacity shortly after shelter-in-place directives became widespread, prioritizing critical health and safety organizations. Limits were placed on free Azure offerings to prioritize capacity for existing customers, and the company outlined a global response plan, “actively monitoring performance and usage trends 24/7 to ensure we are optimizing our services for customers worldwide, while accommodating new demand.” Microsoft stated that “despite the significant increase in demand, we have not had any significant service disruptions.”
The same seems to be true for most internet and technology service providers — even with the increase in entertainment as well as business needs. Streaming services like Netflix and YouTube reduced the quality of their streaming in Europe to prevent overload, Xbox Live has put as much strain on Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure as Teams, and there certainly have been outages in every system. But in general, things are running better than many feared at the beginning.
Internet metrics firm Ookla has been tracking COVID-19’s impact on global internet performance, and shows a -5% change in fixed broadband speeds in the U.S. since March 2, and a -7% change in Canada. Meanwhile, the “Keep Americans Connected Pledge,” announced by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and signed by more than 700 companies and associations, guarantees Americans will not lose broadband or telephone connectivity as a result of economic hardship.
Where is technology struggling? Most notably, unemployment systems, many of which are built on technology older than the applicants using them. Websites are crashing under the unprecedented number of applicants — nearly 17 million in a three week period, and calls for COBOL programmers are the source of a number of half-amused, half-frustrated Tweets.
The IRS’s stimulus program’s tracking tool has also suffered a number of technical glitches, and apps and services like Instacart, which have likewise seen unprecedented use, are not only experiencing technical meltdowns, their help systems are overloaded and frustrated consumers can’t get answers. There is a lot of “please be patient” and “try again” and FAQs that don’t actually answer anything.
No, technology is not perfect. But, like so many of us given the conditions and the strain of the last month, although it crashes on occasion it is generally holding up better than we might have feared.