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Stanford Researchers: Clubhouse's Raw Audio Data Vulnerable To Access By Chinese Govt.

Bibhu Pattnaik
·2 min read

Clubhouse downloads rose quickly in China, where users are usually blocked from discussing sensitive subjects such as the government crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.

Researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory are warning users of the social media discussion app Clubhouse that their information — including raw audio data — could be accessed by the Chinese government.

What Happened: SIO researchers said yesterday in a post they had confirmed that Clubhouse uses back-end infrastructure provided by Agora, a Shanghai-based startup with an office in Silicon Valley, and that "Agora would likely have access to users’ raw audio."

The vulnerability depends on whether servers are hosted in China, where Agora would be subject to cybersecurity laws that force companies to cooperate with authorities on anything the government deems a security risk. SIO makes it clear that users' audio recordings are "probably" safe, as long as Clubhouse uses servers in the U.S. when it temporarily stores audio.

"In at least one instance, SIO observed room metadata being relayed to servers we believe to be hosted in the PRC, and audio to servers managed by Chinese entities and distributed around the world via Anycast," SIO said.

SIO also said that Clubhouse ID numbers and chatroom IDs are transmitted in plaintext, making them very easy to track from the outside.

Why It Matters: This potentially puts millions of users in China at risk of punishment, SIO said. In the past month, downloads of the app skyrocketed in China, where Clubhouse briefly benefited from lack of censorship before authorities caught on. Users were free for a short time to discuss sensitive subjects such as China's policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Clubhouse gave SIO a response, saying, "Over the next 72 hours, we are rolling out changes to add additional encryption and blocks to prevent Clubhouse clients from ever transmitting pings to Chinese servers."

Clubhouse has taken off in popularity recently, greatly helped by Tesla Inc (NASDAQ: TSLA) CEO Elon Musk, Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev and Facebook, Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who participated in events on the app.

Facebook is building a product similar to what the Clubhouse is offering — an audio chat platform, the New York Times reported.

Gary Anglebrandt contributed to this report. Photo by Gary Anglebrandt.

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