Welcome to the Club?

5 maart 2021

You really want a Clubhouse invitation from me?

I want to have an account, the beginning!

A month ago, I tried to find out if Clubhouse could be one of my next social media channels (and App) as I saw more and more big names appearing in the press and other media promoting this new media thingy. Clubhouse is an ‘audio-only’ social media platform. You can hold discussions about specific topics, it’s like radio or a podcast with a live audience. You can only become a member via an invitation … well theoretically. It seemed very exclusive so I wanted to have an account, installed the App, asked to be on the waiting list and guess what: I didn’t need to wait for weeks. Within a day one ‘friend’ ‘promoted’ me and I was in. But was I really happy with what I’ve done?

Hype?

Certainly new social media platforms are almost doomed to fail, definitely after the market seems to be in held firmly by all the likes of FaceBook, Twitter, TikTok and others. So they do it the old marketing way: let’s create artificial scarcity. That exclusive feeling of ‘belonging to something exclusive’ has done social media giants no harm, actually it always works with everything! From this point onwards, Clubhouse follows a familiar, tried and tested recipe.

The application can only be used by iOS users (iPhone or iPad), not Android with a much higher market share lying between 70 % and 80 % worldwide. The ‘premium’ feel ensures that people are in a hurry to create an account. And once you have gotten a hold of this totally exclusive thing that seems so hard to get – who wants to bother with things like privacy policies and all the legal lingo in there? It is far easier to just breeze through the installation process and click through to ‘Give permission to your contacts’ message.

I won’t go into whether Clubhouse is useful or not here. I wasn’t sure that a kind of mix of podcasting and a chat application would be a hit in 2021 but it seems it will be… Meanwhile, the application already raised an additional $100 million in January following a $10 million. The app is the work of Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. Rohan is ex-Google, of course – what do you think?

Privacy?

The number of social media apps that are privacy genuinely privacy-friendly is limited. Clubhouse could of course have taken advantage of the renewed interest in privacy, but, alas, they didn’t. Clubhouse could have been perfectly privacy-friendly. In short, it is anything but! What is worrying, however, is that you are not only exposing yourself (you still choose that yourself), but also others – who are not users, and who do not know that you shared their phone number with the company. I know this isn’t completely new, some other social media do the same but Clubhouse goes a little bit further.

Your contacts, your friends: oh my!

So you get an invitation to Clubhouse. Yay! Well not really: if you got an invite, that actually implies that Clubhouse has already processed your number without your consent. There is no ground for this within the GDPR, so this is already a problem on a European level and has raised red flags from day 1.

When you create an account, you will notice that the app very quickly asks for access to your contact list. This is necessary (according to them) to recommend your followers and for the proper functioning of the app. If you refuse you will notice that certain functions are not available. The positive thing is that you can at least refuse! But not so fast.

After all, a new user receives a number of invites. Here is the catch: it is impossible to invite someone without immediately giving them full access to your contact list. And this is something I really don’t like. If you allow Clubhouse to scan your contact list, a couple of things happen: first of all, Clubhouse archives all your contacts on their servers. After that, they look at who is already a user, and you get the chance to follow your contacts. And finally, your contacts are saved to enable invites.

So, what should you do? Don’t give access to your contact list. I know, who doesn’t want to have many followers? But there are other ways to do that: you can share your handle on other social media for instance. Check out followers of followers, and so on. It’s more difficult, but it works.

Clubhouse records conversations.

The company records your conversations. Hardly a surprise, I know. It seems only to record the speakers in the room and only ‘temporarily’ to be able to assess complaints about conversations in the room. If there are no complaints, the audio is deleted from their servers.

It is impossible to verify whether Clubhouse actually does what it says, although of course there are practical matters that speak in Clubhouse’s favour. Firstly, data costs money. Secondly, is it worth it for the company archive all conversations anyway? Is it in the company’s interest?

There is no certainty and there are open questions that have yet to be answered. Be aware that room calls are recorded, so do not share sensitive information about yourself, friends or family. And don’t say anything on Clubhouse you wouldn’t say out loud in public. Some people have already had to learn this the hard way and faced some degree of public backlash.

Privacy policy

The privacy policy seems to be only available in English, which is already a violation of the GDPR, as far as I can recall. In fact, the policy is not at all GDPR-compliant. A number of essentials is missing, such as DPO contact (who you can go to for privacy questions), referral to local data authorities, or even a detailed statement which data is stored and processed and for what purpose. I assume they will update this within the next weeks and months, but still it feels uncomfortable. If privacy was ever a major selling point for joining up, that ship has long sailed.  But if Clubhouse wants to grow up very fast, then there is also work to be done on their privacy promises. The question remains of course if that will play a role in people’s decision whether or not to join Clubhouse.

Leaving Clubhouse, the end?

Unlike Twitter or Facebook, Clubhouse provides no immediate way for users to delete their accounts. Instead of an option to do so in the app itself, or via the company’s website, Clubhouse’s privacy policy states that users need to contact the company and request a deletion of their account, which is anything but convenient or easy. Wow, I really hope this will change as the platform will mature. But of course, this might also be a way to raise the bar for a deletion so people just cannot be bothered to jump through those hoops.

Invitation?

So I’m in and you want an invitation from me? Sorry, but no. Forget it, I won’t give it to you, at least not now.

Eddy Willems

Security Evangelist at G DATA CyberDefense | Author #Cyberdanger #HetVirus

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