Chinese startup “Agora” raised billions after Clubhouse’s extreme rise

In just two months, Clubhouse has become the place of choice for celebrities like Elon Musk or Drake to talk on everything from telepathic monkeys to stock market valuations. But the real winner of the audio-chat app’s extreme rise is a loss-making Shanghai startup called Agora Inc.

Agora is an industrious but low-profile software tools provider, which has soared more than 150% since mid-January when online chatter began to circulate about how it powers the world’s hottest new social media forum. That’s because the little-known company — now worth almost $10 billion — provides developers with all they need to build real-time voice and video functions within applications: a template is known as a software development kit.

Agora has been linked publicly to Clubhouse since its IPO last summer, though it remains unclear the extent to which the red-hot social media forum employed its software kit. Decompiling the Clubhouse app reveals Agora’s name in the code, meaning Clubhouse is using at least part of the Chinese firm’s SDK, according to two engineers familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because taking software code apart violates Apple’s iOS user policies.

Clubhouse’s co-founders, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth have said in conversations on the app that they use Agora, according to two people who heard those discussions but asked not to be named because Clubhouse doesn’t talk publicly about its tech stack.

Beyond just powering Agora’s stock price, however, that undefined link is beginning to spur concerns about the security of the app. Agora declined to comment on its relationship with Clubhouse but said in a statement it takes privacy and security seriously.

But it’s the potential for surveillance that worries international users. Chinese law requires its companies to hand over information on request and even gather data on behalf of Beijing if it’s deemed in the interests of national security.

According to Agora co-founder Tony Wang, the company doesn’t store any end-user data but serves as a “pass-over.” But from a technical perspective, it does get ahold of real-time voice data that it helps transmit on Clubhouse. It won’t be able to cross-identify that with users’ mobile numbers — which in turn unearths their real-world identities — because such data is managed by Clubhouse itself, according to the two engineers familiar with the matter.

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