Granting an app access to your contacts is ethically dicey, even if it’s an app you trust. If you’re like most people, the contacts in your phone include not just your real-life friends, but also old acquaintances, business associates, doctors, bosses, and people you once went on a bad date with. For journalists, they might also include confidential sources (although careful journalists will avoid this). When you upload those numbers, not only are you telling the app developer that you’re connected to those people, but you’re also telling it that those people are connected to you — which they might or might not have wanted the app to know. For example, say you have an ex or even a harasser you’ve tried to block from your life, but they still have your number in their phone; if they upload their contacts, Clubhouse will know you’re connected to them and make recommendations on that basis.
Some social networks even use this sort of info to start building secret dossiers on people who don’t use the app, sometimes called “shadow profiles.” (Facebook is a notable example, though almost certainly not the only one.) For instance, if User A uploads the number of a person named C who isn’t on the app, and User B also uploads the same number, now the app knows that C is connected to B and A, even though C has never used the app at all. While Clubhouse did not respond to my request for comment, it seems evident from the app that it is collecting at least some information about non-Clubhouse users, linked to their phone numbers.
There are at least two additional ways in which Clubhouse appears to take users’ contact data further than the norm.
Clubhouse can learn a lot about you based on who you know, and sharing your address book under the guise of connecting you with your friends is an easy way for Clubhouse to get that information. But reading through Oremus’s article, I was surprised to see the number of people with restaurants, barbers, and dead people in their contact lists. Oremus even admitted to having a restaurant in his contacts that closed two years ago. I am really bad at adding contacts to my phone, and usually just look up numbers for businesses in Maps. But I digress.
As for Clubhouse asking for my address book, the answer is a simple decline. I treat the information in my address book as confidential. I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me to give out other people’s contact information. I wouldn’t give the contents of my address book to a guy on the street, so why would I give it to Clubhouse (or Facebook, for that matter)? I would expect the same from my contacts, but again, reading this article about Clubhouse and looking at these tweets, I feel like I may be in the minority here.