Is Popular Houseparty App Sharing Your Data?

San Diego woman sues virtual hangout app for allegedly disclosing personal data to Facebook and other companies.

A laptop shows people gathered together online for a virtual happy hour
Jamie Lee Finch via AP

While state and federal governments look to reopen the economy and ease social distancing guidelines, millions of people continue to turn to technology for their social interactions.

Among the most popular apps has been “Houseparty” - a video chat app that provides a virtual house to hangout with no advance notice. The app went viral in the days and weeks following state and federal social and economic lockdowns. More than two million people downloaded the app in the three weeks since elected officials in California and throughout the country outlawed social gatherings. 

But in a new class-action lawsuit filed by a San Diego resident, the company that owns the Houseparty app is accused of illegally gathering and sharing user data to Facebook without notifying users beforehand.

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According to the lawsuit filed by Heather Sweeney in federal court, the app - which is owned by Epic Games, the same company that created the popular game Fortnite - failed to notify users that the app was providing personal information to Facebook without proper consent. 

The proposed class-action lawsuit alleges that the company notifies Facebook when the user opens the app, allowing the social media giant and other third party sites to send targeted ads to the user. 

Attorney Josh Swigart, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Sweeney, said the app had more than “50 million daily meeting participants” during the month of March.

Reads the lawsuit, “Houseparty promises its customers that [it] ‘has never sold your data and will not ever sell your data, ever.’ Despite its claimed commitment to user privacy and security, in fact, unbeknownst to its customers, Defendants disclosed their [personally identifiable information] to unauthorized third parties without customer’s consent.”

What kind of information is the company collecting? 

According to Swigart, the app not only collects the information from the user's social media accounts but if the account is linked to the user's contact profiles, then it collects and disseminates the contact information for those parties as well as the user’s zip code, IP address, and location. And, in doing so, adds Swigart, Houseparty’s owner is not complying with the state’s Consumer Privacy Act.”

“Ms. Sweeney wants transparency and the ability to have a say in who has access to her personal information, how it is collected and ultimately how it will be shared,” Swigart said in a statement to NBC 7.

“That was the purpose of the California legislature passing the most forward thinking and advanced piece of consumer legislation last year. Companies like Epic have been on notice for close to a year that these types of policies required change, disclosure and consent from their users. Ms. Sweeney hopes that through this action Epic will begin to take consumer privacy seriously.”

But a spokesperson for Houseparty says the company is clear on what data it collects on users and what it does with it. 

Houseparty’s privacy policy, updated on April 10, 2020, states the company collects your name, email, the contacts you invite, the websites you visited before logging on to Houseparty, as well as recent purchases you made. The spokesperson said that while it collects this data, it does not sell any of it to third-party websites.

“Houseparty has never sold customer data and never will. Ever,” reads the company’s statement to NBC 7. “We’ve updated our Privacy Policy to make this and other topics much clearer.”

As for the lawsuit, the company considers the case “meritless” and says it “will vigorously defend” the privacy policy in court.

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