In a move that highlights growing concerns over Chinese espionage, Australia’s Department of Defence has banned staff and serving personnel from downloading WeChat on their work phones, Australian papers have revealed.
However, limited use of Facebook and other social media outlets was still allowed, they said.
The decision follows remarks last year by former Defence minister Dennis Richardson that Chinese spies were “very active” in the country and that Australia’s top spy agency was “overwhelmed” by the Chinese espionage activities.
A cybersecurity expert said part of the concern stemmed from WeChat’s “higher ability to aggregate and monitor data“. India’s defense forces banned WeChat and 40 other Chinese apps in December because of fears they could contain spyware or malicious bugs.
WeChat has amassed an unrivaled user base of more than 900 million users in mainland China in a little over five years since its launch and the group is making bold forays into overseas markets.
“Narrow nationalism” was behind the WeChat ban and the already strained Sino-Australian ties could “slip into a more bridled situation”, the Beijing-based Global Times claimed.
Canberra was showcasing its strong desire to pander to US interests by containing China, said the Chinese tabloid, known for its hawkish take on international affairs.
“Canberra was also quick to learn and ape the schizophrenia and China phobia that pervaded the US intelligentsia and political scene,” another op-ed in the People’s Daily said.
The Australian military has also avoided Huawei and ZTE switchboards and smartphones made in China after US spy chief Mike Pompeo issued blunt security warnings about these companies’ products.
Yu Lei, an international studies professor at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, said there should be room for negotiation with Tencent, the Shenzhen-based tech giant that owns WeChat, as well as with other Chinese internet service providers when it comes to addressing the alleged security breaches.
“Since Apple and Amazon are moving their data servers to China as required by a recent update to Chinese laws concerning privacy and consumer rights protection, foreign regulators can also introduce a ‘reciprocal’ legislation to mandate that Chinese firms and apps like WeChat keep and store locally generated data within their respective countries,” the scholar was quoted as telling the People’s Daily.
However, WeChat has also been drawn into a domestic media glare after Li Shufu, founder of the thriving Zhejiang-based automaker Geely Automobile, which just became the biggest shareholder in Daimler AG, said in public that he feared Tencent and its founder Pony Ma would have backdoor access to each and single message he sent via WeChat.
“[WeChat users] nowadays are almost transparent… and Chinese companies will have a weak underbelly in global competition if the issue of user privacy is still taken lightly,” said Li at a forum during which he took a potshot at the nation’s most used social networking app.
WeChat rushed to issue a vehement denial, saying the app would never monitor or copy chat history, nor would it be used for big data analysis.
Still, Tencent has stayed mum on whether the chat history or data of its growing foreign users will be cached in its Shenzhen servers or whether its billions of instant messages are vetted by Beijing’s army of “thought police”.
There are been reports of treason and espionage cases in China in which defendants were convicted with evidence such as retrieved messages, pictures and videos sent and received via WeChat.