A Zoom community meeting on the new mural under the Austin’s Lake/Central viaduct got shut down about 10 minutes into deliberations after at least two unknown parties hacked the virtual meeting room. 

The hack happened about 10 minutes into the Jan. 25 virtual meeting, with the hackers using the screen-sharing function to display pornography and use highlight function to write and draw obscene messages. The hosts attempted to reboot the meeting, to no avail. 

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), who co-hosted the meeting, said that the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events staff told him that the meeting room was hacked, but didn’t share any details beyond that. He said that the meeting has been rescheduled for Feb. 2 at 6 p.m., this time with additional security precautions. When asked for more details about the precautions, the alderman declined to elaborate. 

The Jan. 25 Central/Lake mural meeting was co-hosted by Taliaferro, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and DCASE Curator of Public Art Joanna Goebel. The two alderpeople are collaborating on the mural project because, while the west wall is in Taliaferro’s ward, the east wall falls within Mitts’ ward. 

Since talking office, Taliaferro has been using the participatory budgeting to let voters decide how to use a portion of his “aldermanic menu” funding and the mural repainting was one of the projects approved in 2017. A number of residents have been pushing for both sides to be repainted. Since alderpeople can only use their menu funds in their own wards, that would require getting Mitts on board.

Before the meeting on the mural held in September 2021, attendees were required to register ahead of time. That wasn’t a requirement for the Jan. 25 meeting. Attendees simply had to click the link that contained the meeting room ID and password. Typically, though, Taliaferro’s regular monthly community meetings don’t require a password. Attendees simply need to type in a meeting room ID. 

The Jan. 25 meeting started off smoothly, with Mitts and Taliaferro welcoming the attendees and expressing their support for the project. But as Goebel prepared to give her presentation, she tried to make Byron Watson, Taliaferro’s chief of staff, a host, so that he could check the waiting room for any late attendees while she did the presentation. 

While the host switch was successful, they ran into technical difficulties as they tried to share Goebel’s screen. As the two officials tried to sort the issue out, the screen-share suddenly came on, displaying a browser window with a pornographic website. 

The officials tried to regain control of the meeting room as the intruders used the screen-sharing to play pornographic videos, and used the highlight function to write obscenities and draw male genitalia. Goebel instructed everybody to log off, saying that they would try to reboot the meeting room.

Before logging off, two young men were heard laughing and casually discussing plans as they continued showing pornographic imagery. 

According to Taliaferro, the attempt to reboot the meeting room was unsuccessful, so they decided to reschedule. 

Early during the pandemic, several Chicago area political meetings experienced same kind of hacking. Most notably, on March 31, 2020, a similar type of hack interrupted a press conference organized by Alds. Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), and Illinois State Reps. Theresa Mah (2nd) and Ann Williams (11th). But this was the first time Taliaferro’s community meetings got hacked.

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...