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As video meetings get 'Zoombombed,' NFL teams are anxious about hackers and cybersecurity at online draft

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

Defense wins NFL championships — along with a good information technology department.

To borrow a term coined by New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman, the time has arrived for the league’s “computer folks.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing this month’s NFL draft into a virtual space that will unfold in online meetings, the league’s IT departments are moving into the proverbial corner offices. Not only because teams are seeking flawlessly reliable communications during their draft process, but also because there are some building jitters about making sure the content of those meetings is completely impenetrable. This on the heels of an FBI advisory warning that authorities had received multiple reports of “Zoom-bombing” during online meetings — where hackers bombard feeds with pornography and threatening messages.

Several of the incidents took place on the Zoom Meetings platform, which has seen an explosion of growth since COVID-19 safety measures forced a massive swath of the U.S. labor force to work from home. Multiple NFL teams were part of that initial growth in Zoom usage, although many franchises were also using Microsoft Teams or other platforms for meetings. With the draft now becoming an all-online affair, the issues with “Zoom-bombing” raised some red flags for NFL franchises, a handful of which were still using the platform for communication as late as Monday.

“We aren’t going to be using Zoom for the draft,” one NFL general manager told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “I’m getting with our IT people tomorrow, but we’ve already taken all our meetings off Zoom and moved them into Microsoft Teams. … Our people think the Microsoft [platform] is the one that’s most difficult to get into, so we’re not taking any chances.”

The draft "war room" will have a different look this month. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Moving off of Zoom, keeping draft boards out of sight

Zoom introduced new security measures following the recent string of attacks, including a waiting room feature that could weed out some of the intruders. But with NFL teams already bordering on paranoia when it comes to the security of information, it’s expected that any teams still operating meetings on Zoom will likely migrate off this week if they haven’t already.

In that vein, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Los Angeles Rams team president Kevin Demoff said their franchises have focused some of their talks on the security of their draft communications after reading reports of meetings hacks.

“[It’s a] big concern,” Harbaugh told reporters Monday. “Every time I read something in the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times that talks about how messed up Zoom is, or some of these other deals — I immediately text it to our IT people … and they assure me that we are doing everything humanly possible.”

“With the security aspect, which is probably the most important for teams, how do you make sure your conversations are protected?” Demoff told NBC Sports’ Peter King. “Someone could hack into this Zoom [conversation between Demoff and King], and you’re probably not going to learn a lot. Hacking into a team’s draft room on Zoom is probably a lot different. That would be my biggest concern just from an encryption standpoint of how do you have these conversations confidentially.”

That question has sparked some intense conversations for franchises, both in terms of the platform that will be used on draft day to what kind of information will be conveyed over that connection. Three general managers told Yahoo Sports that their full draft boards will be maintained only on the team’s cloud and internal servers, with instructions given to everyone during the draft that the board isn’t allowed to appear on the video conferencing feed.

Why NFL team scouts are being kept out of video loop

Digital draft boards are not unusual. Multiple teams have moved away from the age-old magnetic boards that were kept under lock and key in draft “war rooms” for decades. As teams expanded their cloud service use for evaluations, film use and data warehousing, more have moved to keeping their draft boards in a digital form on the cloud, with access granted to only a few people who have to log in to view the information.

“We just adapted some of what we did from the business side in terms of the meetings where you have a bunch of different people involved at once,” one general manager said this week. “Early on, we were sharing some digital slides while we worked on some evaluations, looked at some of the numbers and things like that. With the prospect interviews, we were even jumping in and out of video cut-ups as part of that, so people learned how they could share information with the group. … We’ll cut down on some of that during the draft. There will be less people for sure. And everyone will know that we can’t expose parts of the board or whatever during the meetings — you can’t be taking the board from our internal cloud and then put it up during meetings or anything like that.”

Multiple teams have told Yahoo Sports that they will be cutting the majority of their scouts out of the loop on video, similar to what some franchises do on draft night, leaving them out of the team war rooms unless they are needed to answer questions or weigh in on a player from their area. Several teams told Yahoo Sports that scouts won’t be conferenced in until it’s necessary, with only a handful of decision-makers actually meeting on an online platform at a given time.

Teams apparently haven’t gotten any guidance from the league office on how to conduct their online operations, whether from a security standpoint or communications. Since receiving a memo from the NFL informing teams that their draft will need to be held entirely online with individuals working from home, there has been virtually no communication.

“I’m kind of down on the league with this thing,” one general manager said. “We don’t know how this whole thing is going to work because they don’t know how it’s going to work. I think they’re making it up as they go along. I don’t think they have any idea what they’re doing or what kind of problems could come up when this thing starts. We’re all going to find out together, I guess.”

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