WeChat, a Threat to All?

Tencent’s widely used instant-chatting mobile app WeChat has, as previously reported, been accused of putting Chinese dissidents at risk by revealing user data to the government. From Nicola Davison at the Guardian:

WeChat is similar to the popular US-based mobile messaging serviceWhatsApp, but it does more. An amalgamation of social media tools akin to Twitter, Facebook and Skype, it comes in eight languages including English, Arabic and Russian.

[…] Hu Jia, a human rights activist jailed for three years on a charge of sedition, suspects that voicemail messages to his friends had been listened to by guobao officials (internal security bureau).

“I took a chance and assumed WeChat was relatively safe,” he said. “It’s a new product and not developed by China Mobile or China Unicom, [two of China’s main telecoms companies], which have been monitoring my calls and text messages for over 10 years. But the guobao surprised me with their ability to repeat my words or voice messages verbatim, though I’m sure I only sent them to some friends through WeChat.”

[…] Adam Segal, a Council on Foreign Relations cyber-security expert, said that WeChat was not alone in offering potential security loopholes. “Information technology services and software are all fundamentally insecure,” he said. “WeChat shouldn’t be singled out in this instance. Many technologies have some type of vulnerability, and a directed adversary can figure out vulnerabilities to exploit and gather intelligence.”

At Tech in Asia, Charles Custer discussed the other side of the coin:

That WeChat, like all domestic social media, poses a security risk to dissidents should not come as a surprise. Nor is it particularly surprising that countries like Taiwan are concerned about the potential security implications of the service. But interestingly, Chinese authorities see the service as something of a threat as well. On Sunday evening, state-run broadcaster CCTV ran a feature piece about the dangers of WeChat, focusing primarily on how its anonymity and location-reporting features can give criminals an easy in. For example, the report told the story of Xu Xiaohong, a single woman who was ultimately ambushed and murdered when a man she met on WeChat attempted to rob her. He knew where she was, and when she was going to be there, because of WeChat.

[…] Of course, any chat tool can be used to perpetrate fraud, robbery, and other crimes, and many Chinese commenters have already pointed out that the CCTV seems to be unnecessarily blaming WeChat for the faults of its users. And it’s worth mentioning that the app does have a warning message reminding users not to trust strangers when they first engage its find-users-in-my-vicinity feature. Still, though, it’s clear the location reporting has made a lot of people nervous. Expectations of privacy in China can be lower than they are in some Western countries (if you’ll forgive the sweeping generalization), so it is interesting to see that WeChat’s location-reporting unnerves both China’s dissidents and its police. The concerns of those groups don’t seem to have had much effect on regular users, though, who are still signing up at an impressive clip.


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