Petition for secure high-performance video conferences in research and education


The collection of signatures has ended. The petition was submitted on January 14, 2021.


Dear Swissuniversities

In view of the current and presumably continuing online teaching due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the undersigned request that Swissuniversities commission the development or refinement of a high-performance, open-source video conferencing platform that is hosted on Swiss servers and guarantees best possible privacy.

This video conferencing platform shall become the standard for Swiss universities and institutions of higher education, but it shall also be made available to elementary schools, administration, and, ideally, to everyone interested free of charge.

More about the background of this petition, approaches, advantages, and requirements below the list of signatories.

Signatories

580 Maurus G. St. gallen
579 Simon K. St. Gallen
578 lynn k. 9008 st. gallen hslu
577 Viviana Z. St. Gallen Verwaltung Kanton St. Gallen
576 Linus R. Zurich UZH
575 Dr Jung Kyu C. Horw HSLU
574 Bettina R. St. Margrethen
573 Mrs Myriel R. 8004 Zürich Schulsozialarbeit Blumenfeld
572 Moritz B. Zürich ETH Zürich
571 Dr. Stephan R. 4051 Basel Gymnasium Leonhard
570 Dr. Joakim R. Zürich ScopeM, ETH Zürich
569 Dr Ursina M. Zürich ETH Zürich
568 Manuel M. Zurich
567 Elisa F. St Gallen Architetto
566 Dr. Sandra B. Laupen Universität Bern

Background

When the Swiss Federal Council shut down in-person teaching in March of 2020, the possibility to offer online teaching had to be ensured in very little time. Most universities acquired Zoom licenses, but other platforms were used too, such as Microsoft Skype, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, Apple FaceTime, Google Meet, Adobe Connect, or Jitsi Meet.

In the case of the products of American suppliers, it can be assumed that the intelligence services may filter the data and that the companies themselves have a commercial interest in some of the data and metadata. Particularly Microsoft, Apple, and Google offer a range of privately used software and services and are therefore able to link these to the institutionally used products, which can potentially lead to near complete surveillance, which could also endanger the freedom of research. On top of that, some of the suppliers have come under scrutiny because of other privacy and security concerns.

When, in autumn 2020, in-person teaching was shut down again according to the directive of the Federal Council, there was still no alternative to the commercial American suppliers in sight. The high-performance platforms are unconvincing from the point of view of privacy, and the more secure platforms are unable to perform as needed.

Desideratum: Swiss video conferencing platform for research and educations

In light of this situation, the undersigned request that Swissuniversities commission with high priority (i.e. operative as of spring term 2021) the development or refinement of a secure high-performance alternative that shall replace the multiplicity of other platforms and become the standard in Swiss research and education.

This alternative shall also be made available to the administration and elementary schools, ideally for everyone, free of charge in terms of starting a video conference, participating in one, and running a server (model Jitsi Meet).

Approach

The approach that promises to be most cost-efficient and fast to realize is to evaluate the existing open-source video conferencing platforms, select the furthest developed one and submit it to a comprehensive security audit. After that, human and financial resources are to be allocated to remove the vulnerabilities and, if needed, develop more functions.

The development of an entirely new video conferencing platform is also conceivable but it would most likely not be realizable in such a short time frame and may cost as much as CHF 5 Mio.

Advantages

With a free, secure, open-source system that is hosted in Switzerland, the licensing fees for the multiplicity of other platforms can be saved. Since this shall become the new standard, support will only be necessary for one platform. Privacy and security of data will be respected, which should also lower the risk of research and industrial espionage and is of significance for instance in the discussion of medical patients’ dossiers. In addition, the platform can be made available to other entities, from elementary and secondary schools to administration or cultural institutions. They may rent server infrastructure or set up their own servers.

Requirements

According to best practices of the current suppliers of video conferencing platforms and the experience of one-and-a-half semesters of online distant teaching, the following requirements should be met:

  • Open source
  • 256-bit encryption whenever possible
  • No storing of user data, IP addresses etc. unless required by law
  • Compatibility: Windows, macOS, Android, Linux
  • Reliable performance with up to 100–150 participants
  • Works with all common internet browsers
  • Server hosted in Switzerland
  • Ideally no app download necessary
  • Ideally no login or account necessary
  • Password-protected sessions
  • High user-friendliness
  • Prompt for name when entering a session
  • Lobby or waiting room function (host/moderator admits participants)
  • Screen sharing (incl. audio)
  • Breakout rooms (i.e. splitting participants into smaller subsessions)
  • Speaker visible while screen is shared
  • Integrated chat function
  • Free of charge
  • Possibility to install and run one’s own server

Nice-to-Haves

  • Blur background, replace background with image or video
  • Whiteboard function: digital whiteboard for writing or drawing
  • Possibility to draw on shared screen
  • Upload of files to the chat
  • Storing sessions incl. passwords, deletion after six months of inactivity
  • Starting sessions on university-hosted servers only for members of the respective institution
  • Apps for use on mobile devices
  • Integrated private (i.e. 1-on-1) chat