We’ve all heard the rumors or seen the viral TikToks: two students say something colorful, outrageous, or offensive in Zoom private chat, then belatedly realize their teachers can see everything they’ve said. It’s a classic story of kids caught passing notes, updated for the 21st century. With that kind of cultural presence, it’s an easy story to believe. Fortunately, and despite what most Lakesiders believe, Zoom chats are actually kept truly private.
Meeting hosts can never see private chats between two participants. Your teacher can’t see them, and they don’t get recorded. You’re safe! It’s right there in Zoom’s help guide: “Private messages between participants are not viewable by the host.” As long as you’re careful to send just to your friend and not everyone, chat away safely.
However, if you chat with the host while the meeting is being recorded, that chat will be published in a transcript after the meeting. When teachers upload class recordings to Google Drive, the chat transcripts usually come with them. These show messages sent privately to the host, and all messages sent to everyone. This isn’t a big deal for most students, and while it seems unlikely anyone would make a habit of reading old chat transcripts in their leisure time, don’t send anything privately to the host you wouldn’t want your classmates to see if the meeting is being recorded.
Some worries about Zoom security are valid, even if none of them involve private chats. Seattle Public Schools, for example, have decided to use Microsoft Teams instead. This spring, during the early days of remote everything, “zoombombing,” or users sabotaging meetings by joining uninvited and screen sharing disruptive content, was a major worry. Security settings have since become more robust, but now many worry about data safety. In April, Zoom admitted they routed some US calls through China, purportedly “mistakenly.” Zoom has since distanced itself from mainland China as Chinese-owned companies like TikTok face increased scrutiny in the US. Zoom also suffered outages across the country in August, on many students’ first day of school. Of course, Zoom is still used by countless schools across the country; it edges out the competition because of its key features, including private chats.
Finally, know that private chats are an important replacement for school socializing. Students use private chats for a wide range of messages: discreet questions when confused by a lesson, jokes, and unrelated side chatter. In the strange world of remote school, private chats are the closest thing many students have to normal classroom interactions.