”You have five contacts on Clubhouse”, my friend informed me.
Wait, what? I have never used Clubhouse, and I certainly haven’t given them my contact details. Despite this, they feel entitled not only to harvest my information from the address books of people I have private or professional relationships with, but also to place me on their social graph and figure out how I’m connected to their users. Without ever asking for my consent or even letting me know they have my data.
Why, I wonder?
In the “best” case, they are only using this data to induce FOMO1 in people who are not on their platform. If my friends are telling me how many people I know on Clubhouse, I might be persuaded to join as well, so as to not miss out on the hot new thing.
That’s a pretty awful strategy on it’s own, but I can’t help but think that they have more sinister plans for my data. After all, it’s clear that they have no concern for my privacy, so why would they stop at trying to make me feel like I’m missing out on something?
Are they already sizing me up as a target for ads? They have my name and contact details, and they can easily start to build a profile of me from that. They can find my social media accounts and figure out what my interests are. They can probably estimate my disposable income from looking at my LinkedIn profile. If they deem me a valuable target, they might start targeting me with ads for their platform and encouraging my friends invite me. Because if they can get me on their platform and learn even more about me, they can start selling me out to advertisers.
To be fair, this is not a new problem or one that is unique to Clubhouse. For a long time now, apps and web sites have been encouraging users to share their address books or even give access to their email or social media accounts in order to ”find connections”. It’s an easy way to get hold of data that people would otherwise be hesitant to share. However, this is the first time I have had a friend tell me how many people I know on a platform I have never used.
This is not okay. We can not have tech companies harvesting and processing our personal information without our consent. I have never volunteered any of my data to Clubhouse, yet they have it and are using it. If my friend had not told me, I would never have known about it. What other bits of information have they gathered about me without my knowledge? How are they planning to use it? I will never know.
What saddens me the most about this is that it is my people, the developers, who enable this behavior. We are the ones who build the tools that big tech companies use to harvest personal data. We are the ones who help them enrich and augment that data and make it even more attractive to advertisers. When those advertisers use our personal data to manipulate our feelings in order to sell us stuff or influence our elections, we are complicit in their actions.
We need to push back. As developers, we know better than most people how personal information is being collected and used, and I feel that we must take a stand against it. When we are tasked with building something new, we need to start asking ourselves not only what is possible, but what is ethical.
FOMO is short for “Fear of missing out” ↩︎