Future Tense

Can Zoom Hosts Really See Your Private Messages?

A college student facepalming with a laptop in front of her.
D’oh! Sam Thomas/iStock/Getty Images Plus

This article is part of Privacy in the Pandemic, a Future Tense series.

One of the biggest winners of the pandemic has been Zoom, which is now enmeshed in workplaces and schools. But the transition to online classrooms and workspaces wasn’t without its hiccups, particularly rampant Zoom bombing and criticism over the platform’s lack of end-to-end encryption.

With college students bracing for another semester of online learning, another fear has bubbled up: that professors can read any direct message sent on the platform, even between two students. The story goes that after recording a class, professors (or anyone who hosts a meeting) receive a transcript that includes all messages sent. In the spring, a tweet about one student’s horror story went viral.

Understandably, the prospect of professors perusing students’ private messages left people freaked.

But there’s good news: This is just a rumor based on a misunderstanding. A Zoom host cannot read your private messages sent to other meeting participants. Zoom’s website states, “Private messages between participants are not viewable by the host.”

I spoke to Zoom directly to get some clarification. “If a person with recording privileges chooses to record a Zoom meeting to the cloud, in-meeting chats sent publicly (to everyone in the meeting) are saved,” a Zoom spokesperson told me. “If a person with recording privileges chooses to record a Zoom meeting locally”—that is, to a computer—“then chats sent publicly, as well as any private chat exchanges that the person recording participated in during the session, are saved. As has always been the case, a person who opts to record a meeting does not receive chat transcripts from private conversations that they did not participate in.” It’s probably still not a great idea to say something snarky about your professor (or boss!) to a friend via Zoom’s chat function, but that’s just because it’s easy to accidentally send a message to the wrong person. (For another horror story, see this Dear Prudence letter. In it, the letter writer was forwarded a Zoom transcript in which two colleagues said terrible things about them. In that case, it seems likely that one of the mean colleagues was the host.)

If you see tweets and Facebook posts that say otherwise, chalk it up to misinformation run wild. One widely circulated Facebook post read, “Just a by the by: ‘private messages’ sent to individual people during a Zoom meeting show up in the end-of-meeting transcript along with all other public messages. Tell your friends, save a life.”

According to PolitiFact, a nonprofit fact-checking website, Facebook flagged the post in question as false news.

The lesson here? Please, do not believe everything you see on Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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