Is the Houseparty app really hacking your phone?

Video-calling app Houseparty has shot up in popularity during the pandemic. But now the company is being dogged by hacking smears and has offered a reward for information.

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Houseparty, along with Zoom, is one of the video-calling services that has exploded in popularity since the Covid-19 outbreak. The app, which allows you to video chat while also playing online games with people you're speaking to, has become a household name – particularly among young people – over the last several weeks, with a reported two million downloads last week alone. But over the last 24 hours, Houseparty has become the centre of a viral misinformation claim. The company believe the smears are targeted, and they're offering $1m to whoever can find out who's behind them. 

Yesterday morning, a handful of unsubstantiated claims about Houseparty started to spread on Twitter, with users saying that there had been attempted “hacks” on other apps after they downloaded Houseparty. The rumour seems to have originated from one tweet, which has since been deleted, in which the user claimed that the Houseparty app tried to log into her Spotify account.

About an hour later, as the claim started gaining traction, another viral tweet came from user Megan Cassidy urging that people delete the app, saying it was hacking into other applications and online banking. Although the original tweet is now hidden behind a locked account, both tweets were screenshotted and shared on Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram Stories as a warning to others, with further text even suggesting links to Russia.  

Houseparty was quick to deny these claims, posting on their official Twitter account this evening that “All Houseparty accounts are safe – the service is secure, has never been compromised, and doesn’t collect passwords for other sites.” It also seems unlikely that an app owned by Epic Games, a gaming company worth over $15bn now most famous for owning global gaming phenomenon Fortnite, would try to gain information by unsuccessfully logging into teenagers’ Spotify accounts. 

Speaking to Forbes, security expert Lukas Stefanko also said that Houseparty was relatively safe compared to many apps, and that the only real risk to privacy was the fact that any user you add on the app can immediately start video chatting you if you are logged on unless you change your settings. 

Until early this morning, the Houseparty hack story seemed like nothing more than an uneducated hunch going viral: the first prominent case of Gen-Z misinformation chainmail or under-25 WhatsApp forwards. But this morning, Houseparty tweeted: “We are investigating indications that the recent hacking rumours were spread by a paid commercial smear campaign to harm Houseparty. We are offering a $1,000,000 bounty for the first individual to provide proof of such a campaign to bounty@houseparty.com.”

The New Statesman has reached out to Houseparty to ask for further information – neither they nor Epic Games have elaborated on why they believe this is a bigger conspiracy than some teens making a false correlation. Regardless, this story is likely just at its beginning and others like it will inevitably pop up as more people spend the majority of their time online. But, much like all misinformation, the damage to Houseparty's reputation may already be done.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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