Securing privacy and data rights in the age of social audio

Synopsis: Privacy and data rights remain out of focus on social audio. 

Introduction
The clubhouse is a new social networking app based around audio rooms. It crossed over 2 million Android downloads last month. The main feature of the app is the unique audio medium through which its users interact.

  • This feature makes clubhouse different from other platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, WhatsApp, and YouTube. These apps use text, images, video, or a combination of three.
  • The app does not have separate texting features or the option to create online profiles. Its focus is purely on audio-based interaction.

What are the issues with such apps?

The nature of the app raises questions on privacy and data rights. Audio rooms bring new challenges for data regulators. As they have not yet found ways to control traditional social media platforms.

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    • Firstly, audio-based exchanges are faster and in real-time. Thus, traditional methods of content moderation may not work here. Cyber-bullying and trolling, driven by sexism, racism and communalism, can be more damaging on apps like a clubhouse.
    • Secondly, anyone can join any room that their friends are a part of, this makes stalking easier. The app even sends notifications to its followers.
    • Thirdly, the experience on Clubhouse includes a constant awareness about how every action is being shown to followers. This awareness and the fear of being judged will limit people from exploring the app’s content.
      • This is opposite to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter which allow browsing in invisibility.
    • Fourthly, Clubhouse temporarily records the audio in a room while the room is live, this is a major concern. It says that it deletes the recording when the room ends. The app lacks end-to-end encryption, which makes the data still potentially accessible. This recording is done without the consent of the user.
      • Privacy expert Alexander Hanff says the platform’s practices are violating many provisions of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
      • A report by the Stanford Internet Observatory stated that the backend infrastructure of Clubhouse is given by a Chinese start-up called Agora. The report mentions a risk of the Chinese government accessing raw audio and other security flaws.
    • Fifthly, India does not have a strict data protection law: This makes its users more vulnerable to data breaches and privacy violations. The lack of end-to-end encryption in Clubhouse could also make it an easy tool for government surveillance.
    • Lastly, Clubhouse takes permission to access users’ contacts, which is a significant privacy concern. It gives the app information about people who are not even on the app. The contact list can be shared with app developers and with people in a user’s contact list. This affects privacy and contributes to the harassment culture.

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How will the dominant companies in similar space react?

The clubhouse is one of the numerous apps that have grown popular during the COVID-19 as people are looking for new methods to communicate with each other. 

As the popularity of Clubhouse grows, Twitter has launched ‘Spaces’, and Facebook is working on a similar feature. LinkedIn, Discord, Reddit and Spotify are doing the same.

The conclusion
Clubhouse might seem like a lightweight app, but it does not offer much in terms of securing privacy and data rights. It is not very different from traditional platforms. Social audio won’t truly progress until innovation is balanced with respect for privacy, security and data rights.

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