Three Pennsylvania auditor general candidates who are women of color have been the subject of a new form of harassment taking place on Zoom meetings in recent weeks, candidates confirmed to the Capital-Star this week.
Democratic hopeful and Bangladesh-born Nina Ahmad, of Philadelphia, said she was the subject of two such attacks, one of which involved two more female candidates for the seat.
The first occurred during a March 28 Zoom meeting hosted by Bucks County Young Democrats that included Ahmad and fellow Democratic candidates Tracie Fountain and Rose Davis.
In a video of the session, viewed by the Capital-Star, a voice can be heard hurling racial epithets and using profanity against the candidates.
Shira Goodman, director of the Philadelphia Anti-Defamation League, said she “wasn’t surprised” by the fact that hackers waited until the women of color were speaking to interfere, citing the strategic placement of propaganda by white supremacists that’s designed for the most impact.
“We see this all the time,” Goodman said. “They’re going to leave it in a place where they can get a lot of impact.”
In a statement, Ahmad detailed the incident, saying that as she was finishing her remarks, and waiting for Fountain, also a woman of color, to start speaking, “I heard some strange grunting sounds. Tracie … and I heard the perpetrators spew awful racial slurs including wide use of the ‘N’ word.”
According to Ahmad, organizers tried to mute everyone on the call, and were finally successful when it was Davis’ turn to speak.
Ahmad said party officials were working with Zoom to secure the channel and take “appropriate next steps” to identify the reported three perpetrators.
One of the user profiles of the perpetrators was captured in an image by those on the call.
Ahmad continued on to other scheduled Zoom meetings that day without incident, but said she was “disturbed by what occurred.”
The second incident occurred the next day, March 29, during an afternoon Zoom meeting with Pittsburgh’s 14th Independent Ward.
In her recount of the video call, Ahmad said she “heard the perpetrators spewing sexual and racial slurs including the “N” word as well as degrading slurs targeted at women.”
Before the perpetrators were blocked by conference organizers, the video recording caught perpetrators issuing a direct threat to Ahmad saying, “I am going to f*** you up.”
“I don’t think you ever take anything like this lightly,” Ahmad said. “These are people who are seriously disturbed and who knows how much further it might go. This is what a lot of people of color and women face everyday.”
Ahmad’s campaign has since turned to other platforms in the wake of the hacks, while working with Zoom to resolve security issues.
“If they’ve done it once, they’re going to find out how to do it again,” a spokesperson for Ahmad’s campaign told the Capital-Star.“There’s been some ongoing conversations and meetings about it from state party leaders and other folks, on after on. So, we went back to try to have our conversations and have meetings and engage and just do what we can from a preventative standpoint.”
This isn’t the first case of harassment via videoconference software.
According to the New York Times, New York’s Office of the Attorney General expressed concerns over Zoom’s privacy and security in the wake of “Zoom-Bombing,” a type of harassment by videoconferencing is hijacked by internet trolls that has been reported over the last few weeks in the wake of increased videoconferencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Connecticut’s Attorney General, William Tong and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz were also targeted by hackers on Zoom, prompting an inquiry from the state’s Attorney General office.
The Associated Press also reported Tuesday that other states were looking into Zoom’s security measures. Some Nevada schools have asked teachers, who are using Zoom to host classroom discussions during the COVID-19 closures, to use other video conferencing platforms.
On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and U.S. Attorney for the western district of Pennsylvania, Scott Brady, issued a warning about Zoom-Bombing.
“At a time when people need internet conferencing technology to do essential business or to connect with loved ones, it’s vital that we make these platforms safe from hackers,” Shapiro said. “People need confidence in the services they are relying upon during this emergency. Through my office’s partnership with the Western Pennsylvania COVID-19 Fraud Task Force, we will be able to investigate and prosecute hackers.”
The statement did not say if the incidents involving Ahmad, Davis and Fountain were currently being investigated by state or federal law enforcement offices.
Goodman said that while she’s heard of instances of Zoom-Bombing occurring with Jewish school meetings and LGBTQ groups, this is the first time she’s heard of hackers targeting political candidates.
She said the ADL has issued tips on safety and security for using Zoom and other video conferencing platforms since the uptick in online harassment incidents.
“A lot of people are finding comfort – whether it’s family gatherings or religious services or communities – virtually,” Goodman said. “We don’t want the people who are hate-filled and racist and bigoted to win. We just want people to be safe.”
Ahmad’s campaign has said that it doesn’t believe these incidents were random internet trolls, saying that the attacks began when the women of color, including herself began to speak, sometimes hours into the video meeting.
Others who have had similar experiences to Ahmad said the same. Malachi Garza who was a victim of such an attack in Oakland, Calif., told the Associated Press, “It’s racial terror, not party crashers.”
A survivor of violence and genocide in Bangladesh before coming to the United States, Ahmad said attacks such as these won’t stop her from running for public office.
“This doesn’t deter me from doing the things that I have to do,” Ahmad said, “but these are the kinds of things that add up to my experience. It starts with minimizing people.”