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How to use Houseparty, and what you need to know about security

If you're considering Houseparty to video call and play games with friends and family, we'll show you how to get started – and what to be wary of

How to use Houseparty, and what you need to know about security

There are many ways to video call friends and family, but Houseparty’s social features and its emphasis on fun have led to a surge in downloads over the last month.

Unfortunately, it’s also faced criticism around security, including how the app manages your privacy. Below, we show you how to get started with it, what to do if you receive an invite, and importantly, what to consider in terms of security.

Read the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?

Video: Find out more about security on HouseParty and Zoom

We run through the essentials on how to configure these new video calling apps, and what to watch out for.

What is Houseparty?

Houseparty is a social networking service that enables you to video chat with other Houseparty users you know. It has some interesting features that differentiate it from other video calling apps like Zoom and FaceTime, such as its in-built games and quizzes you can play during calls, and the way it enables you to quickly drop in and out of different chats. The feeling Houseparty wants to capture is the feeling of walking between different rooms at a function, joining groups and getting stuck into different activities as you revel – and it can host up to eight people in a room.

To get Houseparty, you can download the app on your Android or iOS phone, or your macOS computer. If you want to use it on your PC, you can access the browser version on Google Chrome. Houseparty is best used on your mobile because computer versions have fewer features.

How do I join a Houseparty call?

You might receive an invite by text, email, or through another app. If you follow the link, you’ll be prompted to provide some details, including email address and mobile number to sign you up. You’ll then be given the option to add friends automatically from your contacts and Facebook. You can also search for people’s usernames to add them.

Once you’re in, swipe up and find a friend you want to call and join their room. You’ll also be shown active party sessions so you can join other group calls. If you want to join a call in a private room, you’ll need an invite.

How do I set up a Houseparty call?

When you open the app, your contacts get pinged that you’ve arrived. At this point, you’re already hosting, and the first thing you’ll see is yourself in your room. A padlock symbol will show you that your room is unlocked – if you lock it, additional people can no longer join without an invitation. If you click the + sign then you can directly invite people to join your room.

Whether you have an open house policy or your party’s by invitation only is up to you.

Remember not to get caught by surprise. Houseparty offers a seamless video chatting experience, and if you’re in an unlocked room then your contacts can start a call with you immediately. You’ll go back offline when you leave the app.

What games can I play on Houseparty?

Houseparty comes with a selection of classic party games to play. They’re only available for mobile users.

  • Heads Up! is essentially virtual charades. The guesser has a word displayed over their head which they cannot see, and describers have to act out the word to help the guesser correctly identify it. It’s a hectic and sometimes farcical race against the clock.
  • Trivia is a competitive quiz game where players answer the same questions to try and achieve the highest score. There are categories like entertainment, fashion, and song lyrics.
  • Quick Draw is rebranded Pictionary. A drawer is given a word and has to illustrate it for the guessers.
  • Chips and Guac is a word association game which resembles a highly sanitised Cards Against Humanity. Players are given the same cue and each provides an answer they’re holding from a hand of cards to create funny or interesting combinations.

Should I be worried about security on Houseparty?

To find out more about the issues surrounding Houseparty and security concerns, we spoke to Which? Computing editor, Kate Bevan.

Is Houseparty safe to use?

Broadly speaking, yes. There was concern that it was somehow being used to hack into other accounts, including bank accounts, but there’s been no evidence of this actually happening. Houseparty is owned by a big games publisher, Epic, the company behind the hugely popular Fortnite. Additionally the two main app marketplaces – Google Play and the Apple App Store – have procedures in place to scan and vet apps, and remove any that are malicious.

How private can you be on Houseparty?

One good thing about Houseparty is that you can’t search for people online the way you can with other apps: that should make it harder for strangers or stalkers to crash into your rooms. However, anyone in a room can invite their friends to join, so if you’re worried about third parties being added, make sure you lock your room by hitting the padlock icon at the bottom of the screen. We think that lock should be on by default.

Also, be aware that there is an option to add people nearby if you’ve got location tracking turned on. We’d advise turning that off.

What about in-app safety features?

There are a few features that you might want to turn on: ‘Ghosting’, for example, hides your presence from selected people, while ‘Sneak into the house’ hides your ‘in the house’ notifications from everyone else.

You could consider setting up a Group for the people you hang out with most: these are private parties. You can also send a private note to someone else – consider doing that if a third party you don’t like the look of has been added by someone else. And ‘Stranger Danger’ lets everyone in the room know if a third party has been added.

What about tracking and data?

It’s fair to say that privacy experts are not impressed by Houseparty, and we thought it was very aggressive about wanting access to your contacts when we signed up. When we set up the app we decided not to allow access to our contacts, and it asked for access to our contacts a further three times. Even after we’d declined each time, the app still threw up one potential person to add – we aren’t sure how it gleaned that information.

If you turn on location services to be able to hang out with people nearby, make sure that the app is only accessing your location when you’re actively using Houseparty. We’d also recommend not connecting it to your Facebook or any other apps.

One thing to be aware of is that Houseparty isn’t encrypted: that means that not only could your chats be intercepted by third parties, all the content is also available to Epic on its servers.

One expert, Suzanne Vergnolle, dug around Houseparty’s terms and conditions and found clauses that potentially ignored your rights under GDPR, and she also pointed out that the terms give Epic the right to use any content you generate in the app – including all the video and audio, and any ideas you discuss over it. In short, don’t use Houseparty to discuss the brilliant business idea you’re cooking up while under lockdown.

Should I use Houseparty?

Any app is a trade-off between functions, fun, privacy and safety. Ultimately, the choice is yours, but we think there are better options available than Houseparty, that should also offer more peace of mind. You can also read more about the security issues reported about video-calling apps HouseParty and Zoom.

What are the best alternatives to Houseparty?

Other software such as FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger all enable video calling as well. They may not be quite as ‘fun’, lacking the range of games HouseParty has to offer, but if staying in touch is your priority, you’re spoiled for choice.

Find out more about using all of these in our step-by-step guide on how to make a video call.

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