Surveil-link #106: Clubhouse users in Saudi Arabia are being surveiled

Recordings of Saudi activist's Clubhouse conversations are being posted to Twitter and tagging participants

  
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Here is today’s surveil-link, a piece of surveillance news I thought was pretty important. You can easily, and slightly more privately, navigate to the link typing in to “surveil.link/106” into your browser’s address bar.


Surveil-link #106: Clubhouse users in Saudi Arabia are being surveilled

Clubhouse is an extremely popular new social media app. Only availale on iOS, the app only had 2,000 downloads in September 2020 but surpassed 10 million downloads just last month. If you haven't heard of it, or used it, it's because the developers are employing an invite only model, making it feel exclusive, part of what is likely driving popularity. It's also a new model of social media that hasn't really been used before.

The app allows users to live stream audio to "rooms" of listeners. In the midst of a global pandemic and social isolation, Wired said that "entering one of Clubhouse’s 'rooms' feels like dropping into a house party, if you close your eyes." Celebrities such as MC Hammer and tech minds such as Elon Musk have joined conversations.

As it gained popularity, it gave its China-based users opportunity to talk about topics that are otherwise taboo or even illegal to discuss such as the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 or the current treatment of the country's Uighur Muslim population. This led the authoritarian Chinese government to block the app, though many Chinese users have found ways around the block.

Similarly, users in Saudi Arabia have felt emboldened to talk about their government's human rights violations, an now fear they are being surveiled, according to AFP. The exclusivity of the app has led some Saudi users to sell their invites on Twitter at high prices, a move that AFP says "[highlights] a repressed appetite for debate and discussion despite the fear of surveillance." Aman al-Ahmadi, a Sudi-American activist, told AFP that many Saudi intellectuals are taking to Clubhouse to debate topics typically "considered taboo or censored in the public realm." And it appears the Saudi government or pro-regime citizens have taken notice.

AFP reports that shortly after Ahmadi hosted a conversation regarding "racism in Saudi Arabia," screen capture video recordings of the conversation were posted to Twitter tagging participants. This is explicitly against Clubhouse's terms of service. Another Clubhouse room was shut down after some participants threatened to expose the others. Some of the country's pro-government talking heads have expressed publicly that Clubhouse "could harm society" or that it's a risk to national security.

Many of the Saudi Clubhouse users fear that what happened to Twitter in their country will happen to Clubhouse. According to AFP, "pro-regime cyber armies have infiltrated Twitter, intimidating the kingdom's critics and distorting online narratives while also harnessing the platform to promote ambitious government reforms." Since then, critics of the Saudi government have been jailed over sentiments expressed over Twitter. All this action has effectively killed Twitter as an avenue of meaningful activism for Saudi citizens. As seen, the same could easily happen with Clubhouse.

Clubhouse was previously highlighted in surveil-link #32 for security and privacy concerns that researchers at Stanford University found in the application's infrastructure. Based in San Francisco, California, the developers chose to use Agora to stream Clubhouse content. Agora has dual headquarters in Santa Clara, California and Shanghai, China. The Stanford researchers claim the user data passing through Agora infrastructure may be subject to Chinese law. They also noted that much of the data being sent from Clubhouse to Agora is unencrypted, allowing anyone owning infractructure which the data passes through to easily collect it.

This situation calls into question what, if any, obligation tech companies have to shield and protect their users from human rights abuses. As seen in the internet age, the ubiquity of social media and user tracking has enabled both private and government surveillance like never before leading to countless violations of human rights. Who bears responsibility for that?


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