In Depth

Houseparty and Zoom: how safe are the video calling apps?

Boris Johnson criticised for using Zoom for Cabinet meeting

Boris Johnson is one of millions of people using video calling tools to stay connected with colleagues, family and friends during the coronavirus lockdown.

The prime minister has even tweeted a picture of himself chairing a cabinet meeting over video conferencing app Zoom. 

Meanwhile, invites to rival app Houseparty have “become the social call to action of an international society living through isolation”, says The Drum. But some are questioning the safety of these tools. 

Is Zoom safe?

Johnson’s tweet last week about using Zoom has fuelled concern about whether the platform provides a secure space for hosting sensitive government meetings.

Reports subsequently emerged that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had banned the use of the app for meetings, a claim that the department denied.

However, the MoD told the BBC that Zoom had never been used for high-security meetings, and was only employed for cross-government chats.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson later clarified the government’s position, saying: “In the current unprecedented circumstances, the need for effective channels of communication is vital. National Cyber Security Centre guidance shows there is no security reason for Zoom not to be used for conversations below a certain classification.”

Zoom has also issued a statement insisting that the platform is completely secure.

“Zoom takes user security extremely seriously,” the California-based company said. “Globally, 2,000 institutions ranging from the world’s largest financial services companies to leading telecommunications providers, government agencies, universities, healthcare and telemedicine practices have done exhaustive security reviews of our user, network and data centre layers, confidently selecting Zoom for complete deployment.

“We are in close communication with the UK Ministry of Defence and National Cyber Security Centre and are focused on providing the documentation they need.”

However, the online service has been hit by security flaws in the past.

Vulnerabilities “allowed an attacker to remove attendees from meetings, spoof messages from users and hijack shared screens. Another saw Mac users forced into calls without their knowledge,” reports the BBC.

Although those issues were fixed, some experts think Zoom still doesn’t take security seriously enough.

“Zoom has had a chequered history, security-wise, with a number of instances where one has had to question whether it really gets it when it comes to users’ privacy and security,” said cyberconsultant Graham Cluley.

“Zoom and other video messaging apps provide a valuable service right now but folks should be careful in their choices as they rush to connect online.”

Professor Alan Woodward, a computer scientist at Surrey University, believes the UK government should be wary of using Zoom for more sensitive topics.

“In some ways, for a public broadcast it doesn’t matter if anyone can listen in as was the case for the No. 10 briefing. However, where I have taken part in government briefings where it is for the participants’ ears only, we have used Microsoft Teams,” said Woodward.

Is Houseparty safe?

Houseparty is another video calling platform that is enjoying a surge in popularity during the coronavirus lockdowns currently in place in countries worldwide. Downloads of the app - owned by the developers behind hit video game Fortnite - rose from an average of 130,000 a week in mid-February to two million a week in the middle of March, according to Apptopia.

Offering in-app games and the ability to drop in and out of people’s unlocked video calls without permission, Houseparty represents the less formal end of the video calling market.

The platform allows users to enjoy virtual house parties by sending push notifications when contacts come online in order “to let others know so a ‘room’ can be organised for friends to join”, explains The Telegraph. “Rooms can be locked to limit conversations to people who know each other, or can be left open for strangers to join.”

But this option for any friends of users to join the “party” has led to warnings of unwanted gatecrashers.

Houseparty has also been hit by rumours that downloading the app can allow the user’s other accounts, such as Netflix and Spotify, to be hacked.

The platform’s owner, Epic Games, insists there is “no evidence” to back up the allegations, and has offered a $1m (£810,000) reward for evidence that the company is the victim of a commercial smear campaign.

“We’ve found no evidence to suggest a link between Houseparty and the compromises of other unrelated accounts,” a spokesperson said.

“As a general rule, we suggest all users choose strong passwords when creating online accounts on any platform.”

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