A would be celebration for the class of 2020 poses security risks

Leena Elias 15 May 2020

As virtual commencement ceremonies become the new target for cyber hackers, increased security is needed to avoid disruption

With distant learning becoming the new normal, parents-turned-teachers navigating online course curriculums, and annual school dances evolving into living room proms, it goes without saying that COVID-19 has had an indelible impact on education. As we usher in what would be a celebrated time for the class of 2020, time honored commencement ceremonies are at risk for even further disruption as graduates prepare to toss their virtual caps and gowns and supportive loved ones log on to watch  — these online gatherings of celebration are also ripe for hackers. 

Earlier this month, Florida Gulf Coast University had to cut short its virtual ceremony when cyber attackers took the online vendor’s servers offline and distorted the list of hopeful graduates. Similarly, Oklahoma City University’s ceremony became the target for an upended digital overtake. Minutes after student Devaunjue “Jay” Williams’ speech urged classmates to be “agents of love,” viewers’ virtual screens went black and soon appeared with racist and anti-semitic images.

School administrators and vendors alike will be paying extra attention to security procedures this graduation season to avoid the “Zoombombing” attacks that have populated the virtual meetings landscape in recent months. The stakes are high. Graduating seniors, disappointed at missing out on live activities their last school semester, want a positive memory to carry with them. School officials want to spare graduates’ family members, the indignity of witnessing a disruptive event.

Zoom itself has rolled out security updates to its features to address the ongoing concern to preserve the integrity of the virtual meeting. It’s also issued guidance to mitigate teleconference hijacking threats, urging conference hosts to:

  • Require passwords in order to join the call, as well as the option to enable the “waiting room” function to screen out unauthorized intruders seeking access to the call
  • Alternatively, setting up a large virtual gathering as a webinar can prohibit participants from hijacking the call even if they have the password to join 
  • Share links directly to specific people
  • Manage screensharing, video and audio for participants, limited both to only individuals that are presenting 

To keep control of virtual graduations, hosts should ensure that they selectively authorize access to designated speakers at the right time. This will give the valedictorian the stage to address their fellow classmates, friends and family free of gimmicks that may or may not be in good fun.

While virtual ceremonies may not measure up to graduates’ expectations, schools, public figures – and even marketers – are doing what they can to make the events memorable.

This week alone, Oprah Winfrey will issue a graduation keynote on Facebook and Barack and Michelle Obama will address graduates of HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). Another event, featuring more than a dozen educators and celebrities, will honor the nation’s 3 million high school graduates, in prime time Saturday on CNN, Fox and other networks.

This shift from in-person events to social-distancing gatherings may spur some parents, relatives and loved ones to tap into their creative sides and find news to celebrate their special graduates.There’s no shortage of resources to help drum up inspiration - in fact, Women’s Day had a few fun suggestions on how to create this less than normal moment into something the class of 2020 will never forget. For example, you can get a personalized video message from your graduate’s favorite athlete or Reality TV star, or for the Tolkien enthusiast in your life “Lord of the Rings” co-star Sean Astin is also available. Organizing a group of friends and family to send in video messages to show they care or even arranging a surprise guest to make an appearance on a video chat. Whatever it is - and as cliche as it sounds - there’s really no time like the present to remind us all that “it's the thought that counts.” 

Graduation season is here. The schedule may have been disrupted by the pandemic, but people are adapting, adding their own creative twists, and most of all celebrating the class of 2020.

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