The surveillance measures taken by the Chinese government know no bounds, as recent research has uncovered. Internet giant Tencent, based out of China, is required to act in accordance with Chinese law. The surprise is that they’re using the data of users who have never even been to China in their lives in order to increase their compliance and develop smarter ways to censor content for its China-to-China conversations.
Who is Tencent?
Tencent is an internet and technology company based out of China, covering a whole host of niches. They are the largest video game company in the world, and among the largest social media enterprises. The sheer size of the conglomerate is staggering, and they progressively increase the size of their company and the variety of hats they wear. Because they are based in China, they take special care to abide by Chinese law and favor the government’s wishes.
What is WeChat?
WeChat is a mobile chat app owned by Tencent. WeChat is the most popular messaging app in China and has over one billion users globally. This places the app’s global popularity at number three, only falling behind Facebook Messenger and Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
WeChat is more than just a chat app – it’s a comprehensive way to use the internet. Users can turn to WeChat for booking a car with a ridesharing service, booking a hotel, booking a flight, and ordering various goods online. Apps nestle within the app, making WeChat an aggregator for most modern virtual necessities.
The scope of its usefulness makes the tool wildly popular in countries like China, where app restrictions prevent users from accessing many tools that have not been approved by the government for sale in the AppStore or Play Store, creating a significant dependency between WeChat and its users. Facebook and its related apps and services are completely blocked in China. Many Chinese citizens absolutely need WeChat to stay in communication with each other, even utilizing the app’s email and messaging systems to conduct business.
Chinese Law Regarding Censorship and Surveillance
The Chinese Government loves when every virtual service falls underneath one umbrella, as it is easier to censor and surveil users when everyone is in the same place. The government mandates access to all data shared across every app in China, and companies who fail to comply are not allowed to enter the Chinese virtual marketplace. Since WeChat is based on China, they are compliant with these overreaching surveillance and censorship requests.
Chinese citizens are used to being spied on, and those with the biggest aversion to prying eyes use privacy based services. They connect exclusively though VPNs and avoid apps that have received clearance from the Chinese government. The government’s green light will always mean that these apps have permission to spy on their users.
The real problem comes into play when people from countries who aren’t familiar with the long arm of the Chinese government reaching into their smartphones and taking their data wind up downloading and using an app like WeChat. They aren’t aware of what they signed up for, and they have no idea that they’re helping to fortify the censorship database.
How WeChat Users Are Impacted
WeChat users within China are impacted in obvious ways. Users outside of China often don’t realize that they’re being impacted. Tests conducted by Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto research center, were able to successfully prove that conversations taking place outside of China were subject to the same monitoring. While these chats weren’t censored, they were undoubtedly surveilled upon.
One of the biggest points of censorship for any Chinese online communication is the political point. The government will not stand for criticism, and anything that could vaguely be construed as anti-government has to be scrubbed from the web.
Citizen Lab sent messages containing what would be considered “politically sensitive” content between accounts registered outside of China. The messages were successfully sent and received without incident. Researchers then attempted to send those same messages between China-based accounts and found that the content was censored. This means that WeChat reviewed the content sent between accounts based outside of China, blacklisted that content, and made it unavailable to Chinese users. Before any of that data ever saw a Chinese account.
This discovery of preemptive censorship shows that WeChat is utilizing data and messages sent from all accounts, no matter where they’re registered, to build up a censorship database for Chinese accounts. Users in other countries may not be censored, but they’re undoubtedly being watch.
A representative of WeChat has responded to Citizen Lab’s findings with the following statement:
“With regard to the suggestion that we engage in content surveillance of international users, we can confirm that all content shared among international users of WeChat is private. As a publicly listed global company we hold ourselves to the highest standards, and our policies and procedures comply with all laws and regulations in each country in which we operate.”
This statement directly conflicts with Citizen Lab’s findings, although it does acknowledge in a roundabout way that they are completely compliant with the Chinese government. Citizen Lab cannot specifically attest to how this surveillance and censorship scheme is enacted, but despite WeChat’s statement, they do have compelling evidence that such a system exists. It’s worth noting that acknowledgement of such a system by Tencent would alienate much of WeChat’s current userbase outside of China who do not wish to take part in the surveillance scheme.
What Can Users Do to Protect Their Privacy?
The only thing users can do is to completely stop using WeChat in favor of a privacy oriented messaging or email system, such as PrivateMail. End to end encryption is the only way to ensure that messages aren’t being read or reviewed by anyone other than the intended recipient.
Privacy concerned users in China can utilize a VPN service with a stealth mode, like TorGuard VPN, to bypass virtual restrictions put in place by the Chinese government and utilize privacy oriented services rather than government approved spy tools.