Attleboro City Hall building file photo

Attleboro City Hall

ATTLEBORO — People watching a virtual conservation commission meeting Wednesday night witnessed a little more drama than such gatherings usually provide.

A participant in the Zoom meeting, purporting to be a citizen asking a question on an Eversource gas line, proceeded instead to blast loud music and use the share feature on the app to draw a swastika on the screen.

“At that point I directed our administrator to remove him from the meeting,” Nick Wyllie, city conservation agent, said.

Earlier, he said, an unknown participant had asked, “Why do you all hate Black people.” There had been no discussion of race at the meeting.

Wyllie said it’s not the first time someone has tried to disrupt a virtual meeting. In the other incident the culprit didn’t sign on to the panel but used obscene language. “I can’t repeat over the phone,” Wyllie said.

And those were not the first times a local virtual session has been disrupted by “Zoombombing,” where a perpetrator attempts to intrude on an online session with inappropriate or even obscene content.

Last March, a Foxboro eighth-grade online class was disrupted by a video of a mosque shooting in New Zealand. In Mansfield, there was an intrusion into virtual classes at the high school in November in which an unknown individual made racist and vulgar comments. The incidents were referred to law enforcement.

But such incidents are not limited to school settings. Earlier this month, hackers hurled racial slurs and drew hate symbols during a meeting of the Longmeadow Coalition for Racial Justice Task Force in western Massachusetts.

Wyllie said the legal requirement to keep meetings open to the public puts officials in a bind.

“I don’t know if there’s a way to prevent (Zoombombing),” he said. “This is kind of new territory.”

If someone signs into a meeting with a legitimate name, “there is no way to tell if they are up to no good,” Wyllie said.

The person who signed into Wednesday night’s meeting used the screen name Jacob Vasquez, but Wyllie was not sure if it was the person’s real name or not.

If it appeared the same person was making repeated attempts to disrupt meetings, “we would see if we had legal options,” he said.

The FBI’s Boston bureau warned against Zoombombing earlier this summer and gave several tips to avoid it, including limiting screen-sharing options, keeping meetings marked “private” and not sharing links on public forums. The state attorney general’s office has also issued guidelines to keep meetings safe and said attacks can be reported to the FBI.

Wyllie said not every Zoombombing of a conservation commission meeting took a threatening turn. Once, he said, “they were just giving compliments on my beard.”

Tom Reilly can be reached at 508-236-0332 or Follow him on Twitter @Tomreillynews

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