To Join or Not to join? Protecting Your Privacy on Clubhouse

How-TosPrivacyPrivacy News

Written by:

Yet to be released to the general public, the invite-only social networking app Clubhouse has been making headlines since its launch in April 2020. Founded by ex-Google employee Rohan Seth and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Paul Davison, Clubhouse received a $12 million investment from the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz after just two months of existence. A few months later, it was valued at $100 million — even though at the time it had only 1,500 users —  and by January 2021, Clubhouse’s valuation had hit $1 billion.

As of February 2021, Clubhouse has 2 million users, many of which are famous. Household names such as Oprah Winfrey, Ashton Kutcher, Jared Leto, Wiz Khalifa, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk have signed up to use the app. However, even though Clubhouse’s user base is growing, its exclusive nature means that scoring an invite is not easy. But even if you are invited, should you join the latest Silicon Valley unicorn? Recent privacy controversies might make you think twice.

What Is Clubhouse? How Do You Get Invited? 

Photo by Josh Rose on Unsplash

Clubhouse in an audio-based iPhone app. Currently still in beta, Clubhouse is available by invite-only, and only users that are already on Clubhouse can invite others to join it. Invitations are sent using your phone number, which is connected to your account and can’t be removed from the app.

Clubhouse users can join “rooms” where they can listen to or contribute to other people’s conversations or start their own. The rooms, which can be either private or public, are closed after a conversation is over. Topics for rooms can be everything from business to hip hop to Star Wars to LGBTQ+ rights and everything in between. One group of black creatives even put on a musical through its rooms, and Elon Musk used Clubhouse to interview Vlad Tenev, the chief executive of the stock trading app Robinhood, an event that sparked a black market for Clubhouse invites. Funnily enough, Musk has since invited Vladimir Putin to be his next Clubhouse guest

Can I Use a Masked Phone Number to Sign Up?

Photo by Pavan Trikutam on Unsplash

Masked numbers (phone numbers used instead of your actual number) are temporary, meaning that they’re only valid for a specified time period. For this reason, you can’t use a masked phone number to sign up to Clubhouse. The person inviting you to Clubhouse needs your actual phone number.

How Does Clubhouse Violate Privacy?

Photo by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash

The good news is that Clubhouse clearly states in its Privacy Policy that it “does not sell your Personal data.” The bad news is that it violates user privacy in a number of other ways: it harvests contacts lists, records conversations, and doesn’t provide end-to-end encryption. 

Clubhouse harvests contacts lists and creates “shadow accounts”

When you sign up to Clubhouse, you can invite up to two other people to join the app — but only if you upload your iPhone’s contact list with Clubhouse first. 

If you agree to share your phone’s address book, Clubhouse will recommend you people you should follow and urge you to invite friends that aren’t yet on the platform. Your potential invites are ranked based on how many contacts they have on Clubhouse. However, Clubhouse doesn’t know who in your contacts list is an actual friend and who isn’t. When the journalist Will Oremus joined Clubhouse, the app prompted him to invite his barber, former pediatrician, and even a health worker that once cared for his dying father. Oremus’ article “Clubhouse Is Suggesting Users Invite Their Drug Dealers and Therapists” explains how by sharing your contacts list, you expose everyone on whose number you ever saved in your phone book, even the ex who used to stalk you.

Moreover, when one of your contacts joins Clubhouse, you get a push notification that nudges you to “walk them in.” Click on the notification, and you’ll be taken to a private Clubhouse room with your contact and other users who may have had them in their contacts list. 

While this feature not only tells Clubhouse who is connected to who and potentially helps it build “shadow profiles” of people who are not on the app, it can also lead to awkward or disastrous situations. New users can inadvertently be brought into contact with people they would rather avoid. 

Obviously, the smart thing to do here is not to share your contacts list with Clubhouse. Yet whether you share your contacts or not makes little difference because your privacy is closely linked to that of other Clubhouse users. In a recent Vox article, Sara Morrison writes, “When I joined, I didn’t give Clubhouse access to my contacts. […] Nevertheless, a few minutes later, I had a bunch of followers from my contacts. Even worse: I got followers who weren’t in my contacts at all — but I was in theirs.” 

Clubhouse temporarily records audio chats

Clubhouse’s practice of “temporarily” recording audio chats is also a bit worrying. 

According to their Privacy Policy, Clubhouse temporarily records user audio for the purpose of trust and safety violations. Audio from audience members and muted speakers isn’t captured. If no incidents are reported while the room is active, the recording is deleted. 

However, Clubhouse doesn’t specify what they mean by “temporary.” In other words, temporary could be a few minutes or hours, but it could also be a few weeks or even months. 

Clubhouse is not end-to-end encrypted 

Although Clubhouse’s Privacy Policy states that all recordings are end-to-end encrypted, privacy experts have disputed this. 

In a LinkedIn article, the privacy advocate Alexander Hanff writes, “If they are recording the conversations in the room for investigative purposes, clearly the audio messages are not end-to-end encrypted.” 

By the way, while people in rooms are not supposed to record conversations, not everyone follows the rules. Clubhouse conversations have been publicly leaked or even live-streamed before.

Clubhouse Asks Me to Connect My Instagram and Twitter Accounts? Should I?

Photo by William Krause on Unsplash

Connecting to Clubhouse via your Instagram or Twitter could potentially be another way for you to find your friends and vice versa. However, connecting other social media accounts may also be another way for Clubhouse to access more of your data. If that possibility makes you uncomfortable, don’t do it.

I Clicked to See the Privacy Policy of Clubhouse, and It Is Empty. Should I Be Worried?

Photo by Andrew Guan on Unsplash

There have been cases where Clubhouse’s Privacy Policy, as well as other pages, like its Terms of Service and Community Guidelines, have been inaccessible. Sara Morrison of Vox reached out to Clubhouse to ask why that happened but received no response, which doesn’t inspire much confidence.

What Kind of Data Do They Collect?

Photo by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash

In fairness to Clubhouse, they’re transparent about the kind of data they collect about you. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that they collect a lot of information. This information includes data that could potentially be used to identify you (i.e., personal information).

For example, Clubhouse knows your:

  • Name
  • Phone number
  • Email address
  • IP address
  • What you look like, through your user photo
  • Who you’ve connected to and how you interact with them through the app
  • How you use their service
  • Browser type
  • Cookie data

The above is far from exhaustive, and this list goes on further. Make sure to check out Clubhouse’s Privacy Policy to see all the data that the app collects on you.

Is Clubhouse’s Harvesting of Contact List Information Illegal?

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Harvesting contacts list information and sharing friends’ personal data without their consent is illegal in the EU. However, in the U.S., once friends add your details to their address book, it becomes their personal information. If they share it with Clubhouse, it then becomes Clubhouse’s information.

In the EU, the Hamburg data regulator has demanded that Clubhouse provide information about how they treat European users’ and their contacts’ privacy. They’re also questioning Clubhouse’s custom of temporarily storing recordings of conversations and the fact that their Privacy Policy is available only in English, making it harder to understand for non-native English speakers. 

While no objections to Clubhouse’s practices have been brought forward by any state body in the U.S., California residents can request to see the data that Clubhouse has on them and, “under certain circumstances,” ask that their data be deleted. 

Will I Feel #FOMO If I Pass on Clubhouse Due to Privacy Concerns?

Maybe, maybe not. Some say the pandemic is partly responsible for the recent Clubhouse hype. The tech analyst Jeremiah Owyang, for example, expects a 30% decrease in activity on Clubhouse when life returns to normal. Besides, other tech companies, including Facebook, are already working on variations of Clubhouse. 

Many people find that Clubhouse isn’t all that, either. Although Clubhouse has implemented measures to prevent abuse (like the ability to make rooms private and block users), there have been reports of racism and sexism. 

If you do decide to sign up to Clubhouse, make sure to read its Privacy Policy in full beforehand. It’s always a good idea to know what you’re walking into, especially because should you decide that you no longer want to be a part of it, deleting your Clubhouse account may not be so simple.

Leave a Reply