Chinese social media platform WeChat warns users outside China that their data will be stored on servers inside the country, RFA has learned.
A number of overseas WeChat users received a notification on September 6, warning that “personal data [including] Likes, comments, browsing and search history, content downloads, etc. will be transmitted to China.
A YouTuber living in France who only gave the pseudonym Miss Crook said she was shocked to receive a French translation of the same message.
“I clicked and…this message popped up, so I automatically clicked cancel,” she said. “The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship becomes clear.”
She said the move is likely to affect a large number of Chinese nationals and emigrants living overseas.
“Overseas Chinese have become very dependent on WeChat, but is it really that important?” she says. “We can actually stop using it altogether, so we shouldn’t let them confuse us. It’s really not that important.”
In the face of growing international privacy concerns, WeChat said in September 2021 that it had “separated” its data storage facilities for domestic and international users, asking foreign users to re-sign the data. terms and conditions to continue using the app, which many people rely on to send money to people in China, make purchases in Chinese yuan, and keep in touch with friends and family.
Former Sina Weibo censor Liu Lipeng, however, said the move was largely cosmetic.
“Last year…WeChat re-signed its agreements with all foreign users, but everything in it, except one-to-one chats, must use WeChat protocols,” said Liu. “So as soon as you click OK, you’re back in [the Chinese version] Again.”
“Everything you write is always available [to the Chinese authorities], so it’s basically a sleight of hand. Nothing has changed,” he said. “You are still a WeChat user.”
US lawyer Teng Biao said WeChat’s parent company, Tencent, is already obligated under Chinese cybersecurity law to help the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with all the data it says it has. need, as are all other internet service providers and social media platforms. in China.
“The Chinese government has always used WeChat in China as a tool to control society and censor speech, which is an integral part of its high-tech totalitarian control agenda,” Teng told RFA.
“It has also always used WeChat as a way to export its censorship beyond its borders, to the United States and other countries,” he said.
“Western countries should consider reassessing WeChat as a threat to national security, data security, privacy, etc.,” Teng said. “[They] cannot allow China’s censorship system to spread to the West and all over the world.”
Concerns have been growing for some time over overseas censorship and surveillance via WeChat, with the US banning any US-based person or entity from doing business with Tencent, and rights activists describing it as a “jail” that keeps foreign users within reach of the CCP. law enforcement operations.
Launched by Tencent in 2011, WeChat now has over 1.1 billion users, second only to WhatsApp and Facebook, but the company keeps users behind China’s complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship known as Great Firewall, even when physically in another country.
The app is also used by China’s state security police to monitor and harass exiled dissidents and activists who speak out against human rights abuses in the country or campaign for democratic reform.
And it’s not just Chinese nationals who are targeted.
In May 2020, CitizenLab researchers at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs warned that anyone who uses WeChat, even if they have lived their entire life outside of China, is “subject to ubiquitous surveillance content that was previously considered exclusively for accounts registered in China.”
Documents and images transmitted entirely between unregistered accounts in China are subject to content monitoring in which these files are scanned for politically sensitive content in China, according to the report, titled “We Chat, They Watch.” .
The report warned of “very serious” security and privacy issues associated with WeChat and other Chinese apps, and called on app stores to highlight the risks to users before they don’t download these apps.
And a recent report detailing huge amounts of user data collected by TikTok has also raised privacy concerns around the hugely popular video app, which is owned by Chinese internet company ByteDance.
In a technical analysis of TikTok’s source code, internet security research firm 2-0 found that the app, which is the world’s sixth most used with projected ad revenue of US$12 billion in 2022, was “too intrusive” and that the data collection was “excessive”. .”
While TikTok claims user data is stored in the US and Singapore, the report found evidence of “numerous subdomains in the iOS app scattered around the world”, including Baishan, China.
As of September 2021, TikTok had over 1 billion active users worldwide, including 142.2 million in North America.
The report revealed that TikTok uses a number of permissions considered “dangerous” by industry experts.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.