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Clubhouse’s Security and Privacy Lag Behind Its Huge Growth

Clubhouse did not respond to a request from WIRED for comment by press time about its recent security stumbles. In a statement to the Stanford Internet Observatory researchers, Clubhouse detailed specific changes it planned to make to strengthen its security, including cutting off pings to servers in China and strengthening its encryption. The company also said it would work with a third-party data security firm to help see the changes through. In response to the unauthorized website that was re-streaming Clubhouse discussions, the company told media outlets that it had permanently banned the user behind it and would add additional “safeguards” to prevent the situation from occurring again.

Though Clubhouse seems to be taking researcher feedback seriously, the company hasn’t been specific about all of the security improvements it has implemented or plans to add. Additionally, given that the app doesn’t appear to offer end-to-end encryption to its users, researchers say there is still a sense that Clubhouse hasn’t given adequate thought to its security posture. And that’s even before you grapple with some of the fundamental privacy questions the app raises.

When you start a new Clubhouse room, you can choose from three settings: An “open” room is accessible by any user on the platform, a “social” room only admits people you follow, and a “closed” room restricts access to invitees. Each comes with its own implicit level of privacy, which Clubhouse could make more explicit.    

“I think for public rooms, Clubhouse should give users the expectation that public means public to all users, since anyone can join and record, take notes, etc.” says David Thiel, chief technology officer of the Stanford Internet Observatory. “For private rooms, they can convey that as with any
communication mechanism, an authorized member can record contents and identities, so make sure you both establish expectations and trust the participants.”

Like any prominent social network, Clubhouse has also struggled to deal with abuse on the platform. The app’s terms of service ban hate speech, racism, and harassment as of November, and the platform offers some moderation features, like the ability to block users or flag a room as potentially abusive. But one of Clubhouse’s biggest features is also a problem for anti-abuse: People can use the platform without the liability that their contributions will be automatically saved as posts. This can embolden some users to make abusive or derogatory remarks, thinking they won’t be recorded and won’t face consequences.

Stanford’s Thiel says that Clubhouse currently stores recordings of discussions temporarily to review in case of abuse claims. If the company were to implement end-to-end encryption for security, though, it would have an even more difficult time staying on top of abuse, because it wouldn’t be able to make those recordings so easily. Every social media platform faces some version of this tension, but security experts agree that, when relevant, the benefits of adding end-to-end encryption are worth the added challenge of developing more nuanced and creative anti-abuse solutions. 

Even end-to-end encryption doesn’t eliminate the additional possibility that any Clubhouse user could be externally recording the conversation they’re in. That’s not something Clubhouse can easily solve. But it can at least set expectations accordingly, no matter how friendly and off the record the conversation feels. 

“Clubhouse should just be clear about what it’s going to contribute to your privacy,” says Potter, “so you can set what you’re going to talk about accordingly.”

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