Clubhouse chatroom app closes down site rebroadcasting content

Clubhouse, the audio-chatroom app that has emerged as the latest craze to consume Silicon Valley, has shut down a site that was rebroadcasting the platform’s content, renewing concerns over the service’s ability to provide security and privacy for its users.

The app, currently available only on iPhones, allows users to quickly and easily set up and discover panel-style discussions, with a small group of speakers and potentially thousands of listeners in each room. It has been strictly limited since its launch in April, with users requiring an invitation before they can create an account. It initially gained popularity in the tech and venture capitalist community of the San Francisco Bay area.

Its exclusivity has also encouraged some users to breach the company’s security. On Tuesday, Clubhouse announced it had permanently banned one such user, who had set up a relay that streamed the audio from multiple rooms to a website called OpenClubhouse. That would have helped users without an iPhone or without an invitation to the service to listen in on some of the platform’s elite conversations: tech figures including Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Marc Andreessen have all appeared in Clubhouse chats.

Even users who do have Clubhouse accounts cannot be guaranteed of access to those rooms, since the service caps attendance at 5,000 people, often leading to the creation of in-app “overflow rooms”.

Clubhouse says it has set up safeguards to prevent a repeat of such an incident. While few users will be too concerned about the security lapse, which simply made already-public discussions more accessible, it has drawn further scrutiny of the platform’s previous failures.

Much of Clubhouse’s tech is built on a Chinese startup called Agora, which provides the audio services on which the platform runs. That has raised alarms about the ability of the Chinese state to monitor or censor the service, which flourished briefly in the state before a crackdown this month blocked access.

“At this time, I can’t recommend that individuals who might find themselves adverse to the security services of the PRC to use Clubhouse for sensitive conversations,” said Alex Stamos, a former Facebook security chief who researches trustworthy technology at Stanford University.

The company has also faced criticism over its privacy practices. In order to invite friends and colleagues to the platform, users must upload their address book to the service, ostensibly to help them find friends who already have accounts. That means even people who do not want to join the service may have their personal data held by the app, if their friends have uploaded their details.

It has also led to some alarming quirks: according to Stamos, for example, “FBI San Francisco” has 87 friends on Clubhouse, apparently because that many people have the bureau’s field office in their address book. Others have reported drug dealers and therapists showing up in their suggested friends list.