The US says apps such as WeChat are a security risk. Photo: Facebook

WeChat, China’s ubiquitous social networking app, rules the roost in China with functions ranging from messaging to mobile payment that cater to user’s modern needs.

It also has an unrivaled user base among the Chinese diaspora and netizens across Taiwan and Southeast Asia, with over one billion active monthly users worldwide.

But that massive expansion could start to slow if recent allegations of Chinese monitoring of the app’s overseas users have merit.

The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab claims in a recent research report that WeChat uses systematic algorithms and a special task force to monitor everything sent, posted and shared by the app’s overseas users.

These WeChat users, Citizen Lab said, could be collateral targets as the primary goal may be to beef up censorship of messages targeting mainland Chinese netizens.

The system, according to Citizen Lab, tags a digital signature to anything deemed as sensitive through keyword searches, while data analysis screens content to possibly put it on a blacklist for further vetting.

The furtive content filtering includes screening messages, images, files and links sent or posted by WeChat users overseas and, should a cautionary flag be raised, the censorship of any deemed as improper content.

Anything on the censorship list, Citizen Lab says, will not be disseminated to WeChat’s mainland version. The process is developed to corral the Internet and filter the exchanges between WeChat users at home and abroad, it said.

The monitoring was apparently motivated by the fact that a rising number of Chinese studying and vacationing abroad may have added contacts on the app who are from Hong Kong, Taiwan or elsewhere in the West and chat about perceived as sensitive topics.

Tencent’s futuristic corporate headquarters in Shenzhen. The tech giant and owner of WeChat says privacy and data protection are at the core of its business but it also needs to stay on message with the Chinese authorities when it comes to the administration of the cyberspace. Photo: Handout

WeChat’s owner, Tencent, the Shenzhen-based tech leviathan whose market capitalization is usually among the world’s top 10, has until now been discreet about the app’s overseas version. The company no doubt wants to assure its global users that they are not affected by Beijing’s censors.

Messages or content shared by accounts registered outside of mainland China are not normally censored or surveilled, even if the topics may be deemed as sensitive or politically incorrect in Beijing’s view. That includes criticism of Beijing’s handling of the Covid-19 contagion and its throttling of whistle-blowers.

Hong Kong’s anti-government protests last year that morphed into an open revolt against Beijing’s authority over the former British colony, Taiwan’s presidential election in January in which the independence-learning incumbent Tsai Ing-wen powered to a second term, and anti-China sentiment spreading in response to the coronavirus pandemic are all sensitive topics in China.

Users in Hong Kong and Taiwan have long been mystified by the fact that they can post images and links about protests and elections on Moments, WeChat’s bulletin and sharing page, but their friends in mainland China cannot see them.

Citizen Lab did not make it clear if sifting through chats and messages on WeChat’s overseas version is conducted first-hand by Chinese government censors, or if Tencent is allegedly doing it at the behest of authorities.

A Tencent executive previously said that the company’s business in mainland China, including its core WeChat operations, must be on message with the government when it comes to the administration of its cyberspace.

A photo of an empty chair alluding to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo is censored. Photo: Citizen Lab
Screening the chats and messages from WeChat’s overseas users aims to filter their exchanges with Chinese netizens. Photo: WeChat

Citizen Lab’s latest finding, published in a report titled “We Chat, They Watch”, will further fuel worries that WeChat is putting its overseas users in the same straitjacket of censorship that previously applied only to mainland netizens.

Ron Deibert, the Citizen Lab’s director, said if users were not concerned before, they should be very concerned now and re-evaluate the risks of using the app. He also highlighted the moral aspect of overseas WeChat users being complicit in Beijing’s imperative to curb free speech among Chinese nationals.

“I would urge international users to consider that, as you use this platform, you’re actually helping to strengthen digital repression in China,” he said.

In 2018, it was revealed in reports that a Shenzhen public security authority maintained a dedicated team next door to Tencent’s headquarters to intercept, monitor and back up messages and chat history of any WeChat user in real-time, regardless if whether the user was or wasn’t online. Any user and their friends’ profiles are readily accessible through WeChat’s back-end systems for government agents, the reports said.

Tencent, for its part, has stressed that chat data will only pass through its servers “so that it can be distributed to the users you have chosen to send communications to.” Yet WeChat’s user’s agreement notes that the app reserves the right to use its users’ details and content “for the purposes of providing, promoting and developing to improve WeChat and our other services.”

The tech juggernaut notes on its corporate website that privacy is at the core of its services and access to users’ data are in strict accordance with applicable laws and regulations, though its not clear if that mean’s China’s laws or the country’s where the app is being used. Tencent maintains that all of its products and services are designed for privacy protection.

The company also says its products and services, including WeChat, have an array of controls so that users can easily manage how much of their data is collected, used and shared. WeChat has been awarded TrustArc and ISO/IEC 27018 accreditations, while Tencent Cloud have earned CISPE and ISO 27701 accreditations, among others.

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