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Symphony claims its new video tool uses an encryption technology previously only used to keep top-level government and military communications secret. Photo: SCMP Pictures

Symphony to launch videoconference tool for finance executives homebound by Covid-19 pandemic and weary of Zoom’s security troubles

  • California-based Symphony will target financial institutions with its ‘secure and end-to-end encrypted’ videoconference platform
  • Eric Yuan, founder and CEO of Zoom, which has seen a surge in use amid coronavirus lockdown, apologised via a blog post on April 1 for its software’s privacy and security shortcomings

Symphony Communications Services, backed by some of the world’s largest financial institutions and Google, is to launch a video conferencing tool targeting finance executives homebound by the coronavirus pandemic and spooked by security flaws in the popular Zoom software.

Symphony aims to be the first provider of “secure and end-to-end encrypted” video conferencing software that also allows financial institutions’ clients to comply with regulatory requirements to record and archive meetings by “early summer”, its Hong Kong-based CEO David Gurle said.

“We have had the video conferencing functionality on our communication platform for a long time, but the [coronavirus] crisis has changed its profile,” he told the South China Morning Post. “Video was not a really necessary medium because people were in the office. The need for a tool to make people feel closer while being remote spiked with the crisis.

Symphony’s chief executive officer, David Gurle. Photo: Jonathan Wong

“Currently, our clients can use this functionality but would need to purchase and maintain hardware themselves. Soon this won’t be necessary as they will be able to use it on our cloud platform.”

Symphony is headquartered in Palo Alto, California, but Gurle spends a lot of time in Hong Kong and considers the city his base.

The company plans to charge users US$2 a month for the new videoconference offering, which will be a lot less costly than non-cloud based usage. Gurle said the software took 20 engineers two years to develop.

Zoom Video Communications founder and CEO Eric Yuan apologised via a blog post on April 1 for its software’s privacy and security shortcomings, including incorrectly suggesting it was capable of end-to-end encryption of meetings content.

He clarified that for unrecorded meetings attended only by Zoom app users, the content is encrypted at the sending party and is decrypted only when it reaches the receiving end. Content encryption is not available where there are users joining the meetings via telephone lines.

Zoom also removed an attendees’ attention tracking feature and fixed Mac machines-related issues raised by ex-National Security Agency hacker Patrick Wardle.

Standard Chartered told staff in an internal memo to stop using Zoom’s app and Alphabet’s Google Hangouts, a video conferencing feature that is part of Gmail, because of cybersecurity concerns, Reuters reported.

Many international banks in Hong Kong, however, have continued to allow staff to use Zoom and other popular video conferencing apps, saying they want to be able to engage with clients in ways those clients prefer and routinely vet such products to ensure they are safe to use.

HSBC requires its virtual meetings, including those with Zoom, to be password-protected and has reminded its employees to make sure they have the most updated version of the app and antivirus software installed.

“As part of our due diligence HSBC is continuously working with colleagues to ensure Zoom continues to be a safe and secure tool for use at HSBC, both internally and for meetings with customers,” a HSBC spokeswoman said.

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Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and Deutsche Bank also are allowing employees to continue to use Zoom, as long as they take appropriate security precautions.

Standard Chartered declined to comment on the Reuters report, but said cybersecurity remains a top priority and employees have access to authorised tools for video conferencing.

Gurle said Symphony’s new video tool uses an encryption technology previously only used to keep top-level government and military communications secret, and the “key” to lock and unlock content is created by and remains with the clients.

Since the novel coronavirus started spreading in China in mid-January, many users of Symphony’s texts and voice tools began to use its video software, which saw a tripling in the number of meetings per day, he added.

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The firm’s total active users also grew by over 40 per cent to around 500,000 in the period.

Symphony recorded US$57 million in revenues last year, up from US$47 million in 2018, of which around 40 per cent came from the US, 30 per cent from Europe and the rest from Asia.

It has raised US$460 million from 14 of the world's largest investment banks and money managers and technology giant Google, which Gurle said was not a partner in the development of its video tool. The latest round of US$165 million completed last June valued it at US$1.4 billion.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: New video tool targets bankers spooked by Zoom