Hacker interrupts remote Alpine City Council meeting

ALPINE — The city of Alpine has instituted some precautions to deal with objectionable interruptions at the last two city council meetings conducted by livestream.

A crude racial image came up at a called meeting on April 29 only a few minutes into the session. At an earlier meeting on April 24, what Mayor Andy Ramos called a “derogatory comment” appeared.

City Manager Erik Zimmer said this week the city has tightened the guidelines so guests can appear only by logging on with a Zoom account.

“Basically, we have disabled the screen sharing … and people have to have a Zoom account and not get through on Google or Facebook,” he said. “We have configured it so they have to authenticate through Zoom and we can pull up the I.P. address, where it comes from and know who it is and what account they have registered through Zoom.”

Zimmer said people getting in through Google or Facebook can provide a fake name and the two points of “scooping” do not provide an accurate identification.

Last week, medical consultant Dr. Ekta Escovar was presenting a PowerPoint about the latest statistics on the coronavirus epidemic when Councilor Rick Stephens asked, “Ekta, what happened to your graphics?”

At that point, a reporter watching on Zoom still saw Dr. Escovar’s slide showing three charts while, apparently, others saw a blank screen.

Gradually, the three charts went away, one by one, until the screen was blank and then the hacked racial image appeared.

Immediately, another graphic appeared saying the meeting was “terminated by the host.” The meeting continued, limited to the council and staff.

Mayor Andy Ramos said after the meeting that Finance Director Megan Antrim is responsible for the “waiting room” and can control what commenters can be accepted.

The “waiting room” is a virtual room where people wait in line until they are called on to speak.

Ramos said he thinks he knows the identity of the hacker and can deny him the ability to present.

Open meetings laws allow public bodies to deny disruptive speakers from attending future meetings so they can also block participation in a virtual meeting.

City Attorney Rod Ponton said the matter is under investigation. He said he could file charges of interference with a public meeting, breach of computer security or online harassment.

Ramos said at the meeting, council heard the remainder of the update from Dr. Escovar and then reaffirmed that its earlier order was terminated effective the next day, April 30. That order said that residents should stay at home except for necessary shopping and exercise.

It also had closed all but “essential” businesses including hotels, motels and other overnight rentals, including RV Parks and campgrounds.

Businesses began opening last Friday under Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, released on Monday, April 27.

As the Alpine council meeting was winding down this Tuesday, Councilor Rick Stephens congratulated Finance Director Megan Antrim, the gatekeeper for called-in comments, because there were no interruptions like the last two meetings. It is possible some of the protections put in place worked to prevent any interloper’s offensive outbursts.