Sunday, December 4, 2022

Virtual public meetings: Localities balance security risks with public access

(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Unsplash)
(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Unsplash)

While public meetings are still going on in the Historic Triangle, they’re happening online which can pose a number of security challenges.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, public bodies in Virginia were required by state code to meet in person but due to the current health crisis, localities have been permitted to meet online to discuss pressing matters.

Since March, James City County, Williamsburg and York County have been holding virtual meetings, but finding a balance between active public input and hosting secure meetings was a learning curve for the localities.

With many people operating on Zoom and other video conferencing platforms, new security risks for “Zoom bombers,” people who come into virtual public meetings with the purpose of disruption, is a serious consideration.

“When we were faced with COVID-19 and the need to quickly conduct virtual meetings, we knew security would be a key aspect,” said Timothy Wyatt, deputy director of information technology for York County.

According to the Better Business Bureau, Zoom-bombing can occur when the access information for a meeting is publicly posted. This means that if someone wanted to disrupt the meeting, they would have easy access should no security measures be in place.

So, public localities have had to keep a lock-down on security for virtual meetings while still finding ways to include residents in public hearings.

“The technology standpoint wasn’t difficult,” said Mark Barham, director of information technology for Williamsburg. “But from an operational standpoint it was figuring out how you are going to get the public into the meeting and participate but also keep out bad behavior.”

In York County, Wyatt said Zoom was chosen as the main platform for video conferencing because of its “intuitive design and cost effectiveness.” While the platform has been in the media for various security concerns, those concerns were mainly focused on Zoom meetings that did not use security features.

Barham said Williamsburg has a couple of techniques for managing virtual meetings, some of which have been held on Zoom and some streamed on Facebook Live. First, the city places all the agendas and contact information for the meetings at least a week prior to the event. The contact information allows residents to submit questions through email that can be read during the meeting.

The city also uses a community engagement platform called Public Input, which allows residents to watch a meeting video live and then submit comments or questions during open forum sessions.

Finally, the city also uses a call-in method. If a resident wants to actually speak during a meeting, they can call in and be placed on a muted hold until it’s their time to speak.

“So this all came about pretty quickly,” Barham said. “The city’s executive team had been having conversations about COVID in general and what that meant for us for several weeks prior to teleworking, so from my perspective this was well thought out.”

Meetings are available live in York County through the county’s cable channel, WYCG-TV or through the county’s existing online streaming service. Similarly to Williamsburg, if someone wants to participate in the meeting they can call the county and leave a three-minute message which is played during the meeting for participants and viewers to hear.

Since April 1, the James City County Board of Supervisors has opted to meet in person, spread out with one member opting to join by phone, said Patrick Page, director of information resources management for the county.

“The only utilization we are doing with Zoom, which we are using at this point, we use it in the background for presenters for a voice only standpoint,” he said. “And if people sign up for…the public comment section.”

To date, he does not think anyone has taken advantage of the Zoom sessions by Zoom bombing but noted Zoom has upped its encryption methods to meet a lot of federal requirements

Like the other localities, residents are allowed to call-in to the meeting or record their comments which are played for the supervisors.

“We left it flexible for them,” he added. “They can do it live or leave a voicemail for them.”

In order to speak or leave a message for the public comment section, residents must fill out an online form and are contacted back with the Zoom password.

But the county won’t publish the passwords for the Zoom session to the general public and if someone does interrupt the meeting, the county can intervene.

For now the county will continue to use Zoom sessions in lieu of other platforms.

“For the foreseeable future, we’re waiting to see where we go,” Page said. “A lot of it depends on the governor’s rules for such public meetings and such and things of that nature.”

“We went from Zoom nothing from Zoom-ing everything in a couple weeks,” he added.

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Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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