Yaqiu Wang left China for Washington in 2009, but still regularly uses WeChat, China’s most popular app. “I’ll ask ‘Hi, how’s your son’s school’, but nothing that will get people into trouble,” she says. “I don’t talk about anything that the Chinese government would consider sensitive or could endanger people, because I am acutely aware of how it is being surveilled.”
WeChat, dubbed a “super app” because it allows users to do anything from making a dinner reservation, paying for parking, to buying groceries, looks set to be booted from the United States next month, along with social media sensation TikTok.
An executive order signed by Donald Trump on Thursday bars transactions with WeChat, claiming this “aggressive action” was in the interest of national security. The order claims that WeChat’s data collection “threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information” and gives Beijing “a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives”.
“WeChat needs to be viewed as a key component of the Chinese government’s infrastructure of control, not just as an app that connects people and offers conveniences but is subjected to censorship and surveillance,” says Ronald Deibert, professor of political science, and director of the Citizen Lab at University of Toronto.
Several have gone to jail for sharing anti-government sentiment on the messaging app, by either posting on their feed or talking in a group chat. Negative posts about the Chinese government and phrases “Down with the CPC”, ‘Tiananmen”, and, more recently, phrases relating to coronavirus, vanish from its billion daily users’ feeds. Its parent Tencent, worth $640bn (£490bn), has tried to separate the app for users outside of China, which can currently be downloaded on iOS and Android and appears in English.
However WeChat says that it offers different terms and conditions for its non China residents, and keeps all data generated by those accounts in Hong Kong and Canada, and is beholden to European data protection law, although engineers in Singapore and the Netherlands may gain access in the instance of a technical issue. A controversial new security law giving China more powers over Hong Kong could make it more difficult for Tencent to block the government from requesting access.
There is also an obvious issue with this: if you are messaging someone in China, then your messages will be stored in Chinese data servers.
“We know that WeChat undertakes censorship for China-registered users, and we know that it also undertakes political surveillance of its non-China registered users to refine its censorship algorithms,” says Deibert.
“We assume they also undertake surveillance of China registered users, but cannot show that empirically.
“There is a very real risk that China’s security agencies can access customer data, given China’s cyber security laws, but I would not go so far as to say that it is “hoovering up data from the app”.
Arguably, people all over the world should be worried about an app that operates in this way regardless of whether the surveillance is being applied specifically to them. And while Citizen Lab’s most recent research did not find any evidence that Tencent, WeChat’s owner, was sharing international information with the Chinese government, it did find that they were subject to content moderation which in essence, is surveillance, they say.
It was not built as a surveillance app, but a social media network, but by nature the Chinese government has much more control over it than the governments in the west, despite claims otherwise.
WeChat launched in 2011 as Weixin, Mandarin for “micro message”. It began as a messenger app not dissimilar to WhatsApp but morphed into an all-in-one as Chinese people used their smartphones to do everyday tasks.
Tencent, now one of the most valuable companies in the world, owns Riot Games, which produces League of Legends, and has a stake in Snapchat and Fortnite owner Epic Games. It was reported that Tencent founder Pony Ma planned to buy WhatsApp in 2014 before Mark Zuckerberg swooped to double their offer to $19bn.
It has a reporting function on the app which goes straight to the government, for users to snitch on their peers, and police are said to work closely with the app’s staff, activists say.
Human rights activists regularly advise people not to use the app in the West to communicate for security reasons. Steven Butler, a correspondent in Asia for 20 years and program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says he would never download it on his working phone or speak to a source, despite it being the main form of communication with those in China.
“It is a brilliantly designed system to make communication easy and perform a lot of different kinds of services, but once you put it on your phone you are at risk,” he says.
“It is the same issue with Huawei and other Chinese organisations as they are ultimately responsible to the Communist party of China, and are required to turn over information when demanded, so that is a potential security risk.
“Do you believe that Huawei has never done any spying? If not, then maybe you should believe WeChat is the same, but the point is that the whole structure of society is about centralised control”.
China encourages businesses to make money from the west, yet the government makes it difficult for foreign companies to thrive there. Many American politicians say the US responding in kind is only justified, although a complete ban is not certain.
Other solutions, that are in keeping with America’s free speech tradition, might be for Apple or Google to issue clear guidance on their app stores to users about the risks, or to tweak limitations of the app in their settings.
“A wholesale ban will undoubtedly trigger retaliation and may contribute to the type of fracturing of the Internet that we have witnessed in recent years and which authoritarian governments favour,” says Deibert.
“An open and secure global Internet is in the long term interest of liberal democratic governments and we should avoid setting in motion measures that do the opposite.”
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