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Epic Games offers $1M for proof of ‘smear campaign’ against chat app

Houseparty accused of hacking users’ passwords to other site; Epic says that’s a lie

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Houseparty’s logo
Image: Houseparty
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Epic Games believes its Houseparty chat application is the victim of a coordinated smear campaign, and will pay $1 million to anyone who can provide proof of that allegation.

It’s a remarkable, public pushback from a company that has, since it launched the Epic Games Store at the end of 2018, been accused of harvesting users’ data, or installing spyware on their devices. The unfounded allegations usually insinuate that China-based Tencent, a 40 percent owner in Epic, is behind it all.

This time, Houseparty, which Epic acquired in June 2019, is the target of social media rumors that the the app can somehow hack into users’ Netflix, PayPal, and Spotify accounts. Houseparty, in a tweet on Monday, said it was looking into “indications that the recent hacking rumors were spread by a paid commercial smear campaign to harm Houseparty,” and laid down the $1 million reward to the first person with proof of it.

In a statement sent to Polygon on Monday, Epic Games said it had found “no evidence to suggest a link between Houseparty and the compromises of other unrelated accounts.

“Our investigation found that many of the original tweets spreading this claim have been deleted and we’ve noticed Twitter accounts suspended,” Epic said. “It’s a disheartening situation for a service like ours that’s bringing people much needed face-to-face social connections and empathy at a critical time.”

Houseparty’s Twitter account also asserted that all of its’ users accounts are safe, “the service is secure, has never been compromised, and doesn’t collect passwords for other sites.”

Houseparty, a free video chat application that connects up to eight users, is currently in the top 10 of downloaded free apps on Android’s Google Play store. It’s also at the top of the iOS App Store’s page for social networking apps. It’s become more popular as people worldwide self-isolate to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The BBC reported on Monday that the anti-Houseparty rumors began on Twitter and Facebook before spreading into channels like WhatsApp and Snapchat. The BBC contacted two persons whose posts were widely shared, and both said they were simply trying to help others by sharing information about a potential threat. One acknowledged that she used the same password and email combination for multiple online services, a practice Epic Games cautioned against in its Monday statement.

Epic has been accused of playing dirty with its players’ private and personal information before. Last spring, users in a lengthy Reddit thread were convinced that the Epic Games Store client installed spyware on users’ computers. This rumor gained traction when players also noticed that the client made a local copy of a user’s Steam files without asking for permission. Epic founder and chief executive Tim Sweeney apologized for that and promised an immediate fix.

But the wider-spread campaign against the Epic Games Store also linked it to Tencent, the Chinese conglomerate that invested $330 million in Epic back in 2012. Sweeney repeatedly asserted on social media that he has been the controlling shareholder of Epic Games since 1991, and despite Tencent’s stake, it has no ability to make decisions for the company. Sweeney was again pushing back at these false characterizations on Tuesday.

Epic Games has been battling negative sentiment for quite some time, and it looks like the company is beginning to put its money where its mouth is when defending its own products and services.

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