Safe Zooming in Quarantine Times

By CHHS Extern Nicky Arenberg Nissin

With billions of people around the globe staying home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, an increasing amount of social and business meetings have moved to the different video conferencing platforms available today. Among this wide software offer, Zoom has become one of the most popular options: as the go-to app for many schools and colleges, employers, and even some governments, this app has also become one of the most commonly used for social and cultural gatherings. With Zoom’s ubiquity on these pandemic-times, several privacy and security issues have been identified.

For instance, Zoom’s privacy policy has recently been the target of concerns by Consumer Reports (CR) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The main complaint was that app’s terms included the right to collect the video and text content of Zoom meetings, and to share it or use it for advertisement or other business purposes. In the same vein, a Vice investigation exposed that Zoom’s iOS app was sending some user data and analytics to Facebook, regardless of whether they had a linked Facebook account or not. Zoom’s reaction was to quickly make some changes; the company updated their iOS app to stop this sharing with Facebook, and–maybe more importantly–they made some “clarifying updates” to their privacy policy, ostensibly addressing these issues.

Another thing to consider is the power other users and meeting host have to record video, audio, screenshots and chat messages during sessions. By having an open mic or camera, Zoom users are exposed to having their privacy breached during meetings, the contents of private communications compromised, and–as we have seen lately–to potentially become viral sensations. To address this privacy issue, the best practice is for users to activate their mic only when speaking, and–if one decides to activate the camera as well–to use the app’s built-in feature that lets them choose a photo as their video background. This way–by controlling the audio and video being broadcasted to the rest of the meeting–users can minimize the risk of having unintended disclosures or leaks of private information.

The new reality of work and social Zooming has also come with cybersecurity problems. On one hand, there has been a surge in Zoom site spoofing and phishing attacks by cybercriminals, specifically targeting people working from home. These are pretty run-of-the-mill attacks–like the common Netflix or App Store spoof phishing emails–and they can be avoided in the same ways.

On the other hand, internet trolls have started to crash into Zoom meetings by exploiting the app’s settings. In fact, this problem has become so prevalent that Zoom specially created a guide for users to avoid getting uninvited guests. It is evident that the unwanted display of pornography, threatening language or hate speech during a meeting can be disrupting; moreover, the fact that these trolls can also record and publish user reactions to them is concerning, especially on the many K-12 schools using the app.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to expand, our dependence on the tools that–like Zoom–allow us to study, work, and socialize from home will deepen. In turn, users will be increasingly vulnerable to these and other privacy and security issues. As we have seen in the past few days, law enforcement is already aware of this situation, and have started investigating the associated criminal activity. In the meantime, users must learn how to use this technology safely and responsibly, keeping up with the associated risks and their management.

Defense Production Act: A Solution to the COVID-19 Personal Protective Equipment Shortage?

On Friday, March 20 President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to help increase production of much needed equipment to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The Defense Production Act of 1950 (“DPA”) was enacted to prepare and respond to “both domestic emergencies and international threats to national defense”1 by developing the capacity to procure essential equipment to addressing an emergency.  Through the DPA, the President is authorized to prioritize certain existing contracts held by the government as well as allocate resources in a manner in which he deems “necessary or appropriate to promote the national defense.”2 In addition to prioritizing fulfillment of existing government contracts, the President is authorized to control general distribution of scarce materials in the civilian market if those materials are critical to the national defense. In addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to expand as hospitals face critical shortages of test kits and personal protective equipment (PPE), the DPA offers an additional tool for the federal government in increasing capacity.  

The DPA provides the Trump Administration the following discrete powers to rapidly increase production of the test kits and personal protective equipment necessary to curb the COVID-19 pandemic:  

  • Prohibition on Hoarding Scare Materials 

Last week, as many jurisdictions enacted policies implementing strict social distancing, many Americans stockpiled essential goods in preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to essentials like toilet paper, some Americans have also purchased PPE that our healthcare system vitally needs. Sellers like Amazon have been selling out of N95 respirators, resulting in shortages at hospitals across the country and leading to healthcare workers operating in unsafe conditions on the frontline of the pandemic.  Under the DPA, the President is authorized to ration some of these vital supplies, making it unlawful to stockpile designated goods beyond what is deemed reasonable for home consumption or business use. In other words, the President has the power to limit the amount of hand sanitizer, sterile gloves, or respirators purchased for personal benefit rather than the collective safety of our healthcare workers and first responders.  

  • Prioritization of Contracts 

One of the main powers of the DPA authorizes the President to prioritize the fulfillment of government contracts by a vendor. For example, the federal government has existing contracts with large suppliers that provide goods ranging from personal protective equipment to administrative supplies. Under the DPA, the President can instruct the supplier to focus all production on the necessary PPE for addressing the pandemic.  

  • Loans to Enhance Production 

In addition to prioritizing contracts, the DPA authorizes the President to guarantee loans to businesses in order to increase their production capabilities. This could include loans that hire more workers, purchase materials, or equipment to expedite or expand the production of necessary goods like N95 respirators, ventilators, and ventilator valves.  

Additionally, the President is authorized to impose price controls on the scare goods necessary for addressing this pandemic with Congressional approval. Penalties for failing to comply with actions set out by the DPA could result in a $10,000 fine or up to one-year imprisonment.  

The DPA is a vital tool to accelerate production of materials necessary for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. As Dr. Bill Frist outlined Friday, the federal response over the weekend will be critical in addressing the PPE shortages our healthcare personnel face during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are inevitably lags between the measures to enhance production and providing the supplies to our hospitals and healthcare facilities in need. To ensure that our healthcare providers are appropriately protected, the rest of the population should follow the CDC guidance for their community and refrain from purchasing unnecessary PPE and consider donating PPE that they do not need to a local hospital that does. 

President Trump at the White House

The Meaning of Last Week’s COVID-19 Emergency Declaration

By CHHS Extern Sharon Sidhu

President Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic on Friday afternoon, “unleash[ing] the full power of the federal government.”

This action, under the authority of the Stafford Act, opened up access to up to $50 billion for states, territories, and localities, to use towards the shared fight against the spread of COVID-19. The Stafford Act frees up federal funds when federal assistance is needed to supplement State and local efforts in providing emergency services for the protection of lives, public health and safety, or to contain the threat of a catastrophe in the United States.

The White House wrote a letter to the director of the FEMA, and the secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Treasury and the Department of Health and Human Services outlining four major takeaways from the emergency declaration.

First, the letter states FEMA may take emergency protective measures and provide assistance under the authority of Sections 502 and 503 of the Stafford Act. Under Section 502, the President can direct any Federal agency to use its resources (including personnel, equipment, supplies, and facilities) “in support of State and local emergency assistance efforts to save lives, protect property and public health and safety, and lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe, including precautionary evacuations.” This includes providing technical and advisory assistance to State and local governments for the performance of essential community services, issuance of warnings of risks or hazards, dissemination of public health and safety information, and management of immediate threats to public health and safety. Section 502 also prompts the federal government to assist State and local governments in the distribution of medicine, food and other consumable supplies, and emergency assistance. Section 503 limits the amount of federal assistance not to exceed $5 million for a single emergency, unless the President deems it necessary, which in the case of COVID-19, President Trump has.

Second, the letter encourages all State and local governments to activate their Emergency Operation Centers and to review their emergency preparedness plans. President Trump’s declaration also instructs hospitals nationwide to activate their emergency preparedness contingency plans in order to meet the needs of Americans who have and may have contracted COVID-19. President Trump also said the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will be able to “waive provisions of applicable laws and regulations to give doctors, all hospitals, and health care providers maximum flexibility to respond to the virus.” These waivers include waivers to access limits on numbers of beds and lengths of stays in hospitals, as well as waivers to rules on bringing in additional physicians at certain hospitals as needed.

Third, the letter instructs the Department of Treasury to provide relief from tax deadlines to Americans who have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 emergency, pursuant to 26 U.S.C. 7508(A)(a), which grants the Department of Treasury to postpone certain deadlines for those who have been affected by a federally declared disaster.

Finally, in his letter, President Trump encouraged all governors and tribal leaders to consider requesting Federal assistance under section 401(a) of the Stafford Act. Section 401(a). Section 401(a) requires requests for a declaration by the President that a major disaster exists to be made by the Governor of the affected State. The request needs to be based on the conclusion that the disaster “is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State” such that Federal assistance is necessary. The President may grant the request of the Governor and declare that a major disaster or emergency exists, and thereafter direct federal funds to provide relief assistance, as well as assistance in the distribution of medicine, food, and emergency assistance to the states.