Zoom and Houseparty: Video Calling at Your Own (Privacy) Risk

Zoom App

A lot of people are working from home because of the corona crisis, that’s why we recently published an extensive guide on how to work safely from home. With the current situation, many companies organize their meetings through video calling. Apps such as Google Hangouts, Skype and Zoom are very popular services right now. However, Zoom might not be the best option for your privacy. Many people are also using similar apps to organize a group call with their friends. It is important to look at the privacy and security side of these services. You do not want someone to join your Houseparty without you inviting them.

Zoom Made for Employers

Zoom has clearly set up their app for the benefit of the employer. Employee privacy seems less important in this respect. In the Zoom app, employers can follow the attention of other participants in a video call with the so-called “Attendee Attention Tracker”.

This works as follows: if an employee is not active in Zoom for 30 seconds, the employer will be notified. If an employee sends an email or if they are looking up something in a browser, then according to Zoom someone is not paying attention to the online meeting.

This application only works if someone has installed version 4.0 or newer. But since most people have only recently switched to working from home, there is a good chance that many only recently installed the program.

Update: On April 2nd Zoom announced that they would work on improving the privacy and security of the platform.

Conversations Saved by Zoom

Paid users can also choose to record calls in Zoom. In this way, everything that is discussed is stored as an audio file and as a transcript (written text). The chat messages that have been sent among the participants are also saved.

Employers who use this option can retrieve chats between their employees, even if they did not participate in the conversation.

Zoom Passing on User Data

Zoom states in its terms and conditions that it does not resell user data to third parties. However, companies such as Google are allowed to view the data for marketing purposes. Zoom was also found to share user data (such as device information) with Facebook, even of Zoom users who don’t own a Facebook account.

Through information collection and sharing Zoom can advertise on other platforms and websites. In their own words, this is not technically the sale of data, but could be considered a sale under some regional or national legislation.

Update: As of March 29 2020 Zoom has stated to stop sharing user data with Facebook.

Some Twitter-users are expressing their concerns (see the entire tweet here):

twitter Zoom

Are Zoom Cameras Hackable?

In addition, it has previously been shown that Zoom is not the safest app for its users and their devices. Last summer we saw that Mac users who started a Zoom conversation via Safari 12 were vulnerable and their cameras could be hacked. On top of that, Zoom had set up its service in such a way that users were not required to give permission to use the camera.

After official complaints about this, Zoom decided to adjust the settings in the summer of 2019. Users now need to explicitly provide permission for the use of their cameras. This has thankfully made it more difficult to hack into someone’s camera when they’re using Zoom.

Is Private Video Calling with Houseparty Really Private?

Another app that is currently widely used due to corona is Houseparty. Individuals use it to make video calls with friends and family. However, some privacy issues have surfaced, as the tweets below illustrate (view the tweets here and here).

Twitter Houseparty

For example, an account is public by default. This not only means that others can find you in the app, but also that strangers can just pop up in your video calls, see your video images and talk to you.

To avoid that, simply adjust your settings. Press and hold the lock at the bottom of your screen. If the lock is closed, your private mode is on and strangers can no longer participate in your conversations.

Permission not Always Needed in Houseparty

When opening Houseparty, the app asks permission to use your camera and microphone. This is essential for using the app.

Houseparty also requests access to your contacts and location. You do not have to give the app permission to be able to use the app. So if you want to protect your privacy, make sure you do not give Houseparty access to your contacts and location.

Sneak into the House

Do you only want to call one person and not tell others that you are online in Houseparty? Then you can login invisibly. To do this you open the app by pressing and holding the app icon. You will then see a menu in which you can choose “Sneak into the house”.

Tech journalist
Tove has been working for VPNoverview since 2017 as a journalist covering cybersecurity and privacy developments. She has broad experience developing rigorous VPN testing procedures and protocols for our VPN review section and has tested dozens of VPNs over the years.