There's a good chance we're in the middle of a massive tide-turning when it comes to surveillance technology. The global pandemic we're currently in leaves the doors open for governments and private companies to track individuals and whole communities like never before.
One of less sinister ways people could be surveilled without realizing it is in their own homes, on Zoom, with the application's attention-tracking features.
According to the company's website, when the feature is turned on, meeting hosts can tell if participants have navigated away from the active Zoom window for more than 30 seconds. However, one small benefit of using Zoom instead of meeting in a conference rooms is that it's now easier than ever to pretend you're paying attention at a meeting.
Teens attending school lectures from home were the first to start swerving this feature: videos on TikTok show them setting up camera stands in front of their laptops with images of themselves sitting at their desks:
On Twitter, people are finding ways to use the Zoom Rooms custom background feature to slap an image of themselves in their frames. You can record a short, looping video as your background, or take a photo of yourself looking particularly attentive, depending on the level of believability you're going for. Zoom says it isn't using any kind of video or audio analysis to track attention, so this is mostly for your human coworkers and boss' sake. With one of these images on your background, you're free to leave your seat and go make a sandwich while your boss thinks you're still there paying attention:
Matt, whose video testing the Zoom background feature went viral through his wife Kate's tweet above, told me that he's used Zoom before for work but is using it a lot more these days. Since the coronavirus pandemic, he used it to have a "virtual happy hour" with some friends across the country, he said.
"The virtual background feature came to my attention because I love clicking around inside of new programs and seeing what's there; additionally, some younger colleagues were using the feature in a meeting the other day (mostly to hide messy rooms, apparently), and I thought it would be fun to play around with it even more," Matt said. "My wife suggested I make one where I randomly pop my head in from just off screen, and then I tried the video you watched [on Twitter]."
While he doesn't condone using it to skip out on meetings, Matt does think it's an entertaining way to turn otherwise painfully dull video conferences into something more fun, "for people who aren't trying to get out of meetings so much as just feeling sort of lonely in isolation."
Creating a custom Zoom background requires a subscription to Zoom Rooms, which would set you back $500 for a year's subscription. But if your boss paid up for a corporate Zoom subscription, you might have access to Rooms already.
A lot of people are finding out how many of their meeting really should have been emails. Now that we're all doing meetings virtually, you may never have to sit through a boring presentation again—you can just loop a video and go do literally anything else with your time.