Welcome to Houseparty. Leave your privacy and data at the door?

03 April 2020

Touted as the app you need to download right now, Houseparty’s popularity has skyrocketed since the global shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.


Launched in 2016, Houseparty lets you join videocalls with friends in groups of up to 8 at a time and play a variety of online games together too. While Zoom (which has separately been criticised for privacy concerns) is doing the rounds in professional circles, Houseparty is the favourite for fun and games. Until just a couple of months ago the app had around 130,000 downloads. This figure is now in the millions (Android downloads have exceeded 10 million) and increasing every day.

How does it work?

While Houseparty can be a fun, novel way to stay social while physically distancing from family and friends, before you rush to download it, bear in mind some of the privacy and data collection risks involved in using the app.

As is clear from the numbers, Houseparty is not just for Gen-Z. Indeed, you have to be at least 12 years old to create an account (easily bypassed as there’s no verification – you just have to input a birthday). Its popularity may have begun with the younger generation, but everyone from my childhood friend to my old boss to my sister’s hairdresser is popping up on the app. In the last week, I’ve been receiving non-stop notifications that people from my phone contacts have downloaded the app - names are popping up that I barely recognise just because I saved a number as a contact in a distant past.

And this is where Houseparty starts to differ drastically from traditional social media apps. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, Houseparty will notify you if anyone in your phone’s address book downloads the app, inviting you to then add them as a ‘friend’.

Is my privacy at risk?

Once you’ve added someone as a friend in the app, or accepted a friend request, you can drop in on them any time they have the app open, enabling you to see and hear them in a live video call. The option is there to turn your camera and mic off but the default setting is that they are turned on, and indeed most users aren’t aware of the option to change this (especially as you’re required to enable camera and mic access to be able to sign up to the app).

Then comes the more obvious privacy concern – when you open the app, or are ‘in the house’, you can join any ‘room’ (i.e. call) if at least one of your ‘friends’ is in the room, even if you don’t know anyone else. This can lead to some unexpected exchanges. Just yesterday, I tried to join a room with an old friend I saw had downloaded Houseparty. At that same moment, one of her other friends also joined her room. Our mutual friend’s connection was poor, however, and she couldn’t get into the room so there I was, on a live video call with a total stranger. Awkward to say the least.

Some rather far-fetched allegations have emerged in the last few days that downloading Houseparty has led to other apps on users’ devices, such as online banking apps, Spotify and Netflix, being hacked. These allegations remain unproven and Houseparty has denied them, but they shine a light more broadly on other risks inherent in using the app.

How much of my data is being collected?

Privacy is probably the most obvious concern with Houseparty but data collection issues are also worth considering. According to Houseparty’s Privacy Policy, it can collect “anonymized and aggregated information, such as de-identified demographic information” and “de-identified location information”. Although referred to as “de-identified”, such information can in fact identify you when linked with other information (such as your username, email and IP address, device information and access usage patterns). Houseparty states that it can share your personal information with its “business partners” but it doesn’t indicate who these partners are.

The Policy also states that Houseparty may automatically collect a variety of information, including “pages that you visit before and after using” Houseparty, and “any ideas, inventions, concepts, techniques or know-how” you submit while using the app. You may therefore want to think carefully about sharing that secret business idea with your friends on the app, given Houseparty could have a claim to its ownership.

Whilst these are relatively standard clauses found in the policies of the main US tech giants, they remain a cause for concern, particularly given how up-close-and-personal Houseparty is compared to traditional social media. Houseparty is also considered to have a less robust policy than them. Houseparty’s owner, Epic Games, has scored lower (2.3/10) than Facebook (3.4/10), Instagram (4.4/10) and Twitter (5.5/10) for its data collection, handling and transparency policies (according to PrivacySpy.org).

Experts have commented that Houseparty’s Privacy Policy falls short of what is required by various regulations worldwide, including the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. As the more mature platforms are being increasingly challenged by regulators and courts for their policies and actions when it comes to data protection and privacy, only time will tell whether Houseparty will face similar scrutiny.

How can I use Houseparty without compromising my privacy and data?

All of this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use Houseparty – just that you should exercise some added caution. A few ways to try to maintain your privacy ‘in the house’ include enabling ‘Private Mode’ in the settings so that nobody can join you in a room – the power is then completely in your hands to join other rooms.

If that’s taking too much fun out of it, then just make sure to padlock any room you join to prevent others joining uninvited (clicking the lock at the bottom of the screen when you’re in a room). It’s probably also sensible to turn your camera and mic off until you are in a room and ready to be seen and heard, to avoid any unwanted surprises.

You can also change your notification settings so that your friends aren’t notified when you open the app (if you don’t want to do this permanently, another option is to ‘sneak into the house’ by holding down the app icon on an iPhone so that any time you want to open it without notifying your friends, you can do so).

Location settings are turned off by default (Houseparty probably learnt a lesson after Snapchat were criticised for opting users in to sharing their location by default), so keep them that way, unless you want your friends knowing you’ve defied the #stayathome guidance. Keeping location settings off also prevents the app collecting data about your location.

What are the alternatives?

If Houseparty’s privacy and data collection concerns make you uneasy, there are a number of alternatives out there that you can use to stay connected as we weather this storm. Many users believe that FaceTime and WhatsApp only offer one-on-one video calling options, but they both also have a group video call option (you can have up to 32 people on a FaceTime group video call). They both claim to be end-to-end encrypted, meaning the calls are protected and cannot be intercepted by outside hackers.

There are also countless online games available that can be played in groups if chatting isn’t fun enough. But if you’re after the spontaneity and excitement of having anyone drop in on you at any time, and the opportunity to crash group calls and introduce yourself to friends of friends, then Houseparty may well be the app for you.

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About the Author

Dina Fahmy

Associate

Dina specialises in defamation, privacy and crisis management matters, assisting clients in defending their reputation and protecting their confidential information and data.

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