Is Clubhouse a safe social platform to join?
Clubhouse app is (or was) all the rage, tempting with both its unique idea and exclusive invite-only community. Imagine a blend between podcasts and conferences: that is what this on-fire social networking platform offers. Despite the initial excitement and curiosity from the public, not everything on Clubhouse deserves applause. Privacy and security concerns cloud the app’s success, and they might lead to its unfortunate downfall.
What exactly is Clubhouse?
Clubhouse is an invite-only social media platform that specializes in audio-based communication between users. It allows them to create rooms (audio chats), invite members, and discuss all kinds of topics.
Some rooms might be open to all, meaning that anyone can sit in and listen to the presenters. However, you can also create private or social ones, depending on the audience you wish to have. You can also “raise your hand” and ask questions during these virtual conversations. Users can also schedule room events or set calendar reminders to join interesting ones.
In essence, Clubhouse is all about people you follow and the ones that follow you. The audio chat made a big splash initially, with such tech masterminds like Elon Musk joining the network. At some point, users even sold their invites on eBay for as much as four hundred dollars.
Tempted by the exclusive VIP club atmosphere, many other celebrities followed. Who would not want to join a room hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Jared Leto, or Drake?
The app is currently in beta version. Once the final release hits the market, Clubhouse will likely become more open, catering to all interested users. Additionally, only iOS users can install the app, but the company claims to plan an Android release soon.
Has the Clubhouse success story ended?
In February, SensorTower reported 9.6 million Clubhouse installs. At that time, the app was the place to be. However, the fun get-together did not last long.
The numbers significantly dropped in March, with app downloads reaching 2.7 million. Initially, people were very interested in landing an invitation to the exclusive app. Now, it seems many have lost their interest. According to Vanity Fair, even those who have joined previously became less active within the app.
When writing this article, Clubhouse is #26 in Social Networking on the iOS app store. While this is, again, not too bad, the downfall is evident. As many have stated, Clubhouse was a splendid remedy during quarantine. But what about after that? This question brings us to the reasons why the app has lost its momentum.
- Pandemic regulations lifted or loosen. The initial influx of users had a lot to do with our stay-at-home routine. As life begins returning to normal, many people are likely to explore other activities than social media. Instead of joining rooms and listening for six hours, they might do this for an hour or not at all.
- Competitors hitting the stage. Clubhouse took the world by storm. But now, other companies build or plan to release similar applications. Reddit Talk is one of the candidates to lure users away from Clubhouse. Facebook has also announced the release of Live Audio Rooms.
- Privacy concerns make the app not worth the risk. Some hiccups and problems with an app in beta are not shocking. However, the issues with Clubhouse rose to the surface early on in the game. Specialists criticized the minimal privacy settings available to users. Additionally, Clubhouse allowed anyone with your number in their contacts to know when you have joined the network. While this is standard for many apps, there should be more privacy-focused possibilities. With Clubhouse, such options do not seem to exist.
What are the main privacy and security issues with Clubhouse?
Specialists and users alike noticed several questionable features on Clubhouse.
- Streaming rooms into third-party websites. According to Bloomberg, it is possible to broadcast live conversations on external platforms. Clubhouse itself treats such behavior as unacceptable. Thus, the app owners banned the person who reportedly streamed multiple rooms into their website. After this incident, Clubhouse started enforcing new security measures against such leaks. However, specialists wondered whether attackers could continue funneling live audio to other platforms.
- Audio in rooms recorded. While Clubhouse does not seem to record live conversations by default, it does reserve this right. Typically, the app owners state to delete audio as soon as the room closes. However, if someone reports a violation, the service will temporarily save the recording. There is not much information about what happens then. The only thing they explain is that the audio serves a purpose in their incident investigations.
- Granting access to contacts. If you want to send a Clubhouse invitation, you must give it access to your contacts. Then, as soon as anyone from your contacts joins, the app will notify you of their arrival. However, let’s say you do not want anyone to know that you use Clubhouse. Unfortunately, anyone who has your phone number on their contact list will be able to see if you are a member. While such strategies are nothing new, they are still questionable.
- Limited privacy and security options. Clubhouse does not have a lot to offer if you would like to use the app more privately. Additionally, the app is not the best for dealing with misinformation and hate speech. While you can report or block specific users, the moderation tools in place might not be enough. Reports also suggest that you cannot report a violation without giving the app your email address.
Agora: could the Chinese government access users’ data?
The fact that Clubhouse uses Agora to connect users to chat rooms is not something specialists can overlook. Agora is a Shanghai-based company, and users fear that conversations could somehow reach the Chinese government. While nothing of such sort has happened, it is not impossible.
Also, the Chinese government has expressed concern over Clubhouse. In February 2021, it officially blocked the app. The ban came after new users joined from mainland China. They took part in uncensored conversations and exchanged information on political and human rights topics. Thus, Clubhouse gave a rare chance for Chinese citizens to start a dialogue on pressing issues in their country.
Wired reported that people indeed try to fight the ban by using VPN (Virtual Private Network) solutions. The latter allows people to change their IP addresses and encrypt information about their web traffic. In cases when governments ban specific apps, VPNs can indeed help retain access to them. Thus, it is a possible workaround for staying connected to Clubhouse or any other blocked app.
Clubhouse is a unique app for starting meaningful conversations with like-minded people. However, it has a long way to improve its privacy settings and protection against misuse.
In April, many news outlets reported on a possible Clubhouse data breach. The discovered SQL database contained users’ IDs, usernames, names, social media handles, and follower count. Luckily, it did not include sensitive user data. Owners of the app claimed it not to be a data breach, however. All data included in the leak was public profile information from their app.
If you want to use the app, try to use it as privately as possible. Avoid giving access to your contact list or social media handles. Also, remember that by joining rooms, you are likely to reveal your approximate location. If this bothers you, use a VPN to mask your IP address. Then, the app should not receive your real location.
While privacy issues might be a reason for Clubhouse’s decrease in popularity, it might not be its downfall. Many social media sites have such problems, but people continue using them. The main threat might be competitors popping with their own versions. And, in many cases, they will integrate live audio conversations into services they already offer.
Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.