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App tries rare trick in China: online privacy

Reuters, BEIJING

WeChat messages encrypted by Chinese app LeakZero are pictured on a mobile phone on Aug. 23.

Photo: Reuters

In a nation where privacy protections are considered weak and anything-goes data collection has become the norm, Chinese tech entrepreneur Yang Geng (楊更) stands out.

His service, LeakZero (秘跡), helps people surf the Web anonymously, protect passwords and send encrypted messages. By design, he cannot find out the names of the app’s users or even know how many there are. It does not have a so-called “back door.”

As far as he knows, it is the only one of its kind in China.

Yang and the users of his service are fighting an uphill and unusual battle for privacy in a place where the government is deeply involved in Big Data, and companies have done little to resist.

Tech industry executives have described the nation’s citizens as less sensitive about privacy than their Western counterparts, with Baidu CEO Robin Li (李彥宏) last year saying that many in China were willing to trade it for convenience, safety or efficiency.

However, that mindset has sparked debate about the consequences of access, with growing concern over the illegal collection of data and the rise of a black market for personal information.

Beijing has strengthened data protection laws, but foreign encrypted messaging apps such as KakaoTalk and Line are banned in China, while others, such as WhatsApp or Signal, are occasionally blocked.

The most widely used homegrown services, Tencent’s messaging app WeChat and search engine Baidu, are heavily monitored and censored by Chinese authorities.

The Cyberspace Administration of China did not respond to a request for comment.

Yang and users of LeakZero, which works with other companies’ messaging apps and e-mail platforms, said they are trying to find another way.

Hu Zhicheng, 23, who uses the company’s search engine, password manager and encrypted messaging service, said that proliferation of targeted advertising showed how much of his personal data had been collected.

“These few years, I’ve slowly realized personal privacy is very important,” Hu said. “In China, you would receive a lot of spam calls and a lot of texts, all of them ads.”

Yang, who used to be head of security for Amazon China and lived in the US for 15 years, said that he started researching privacy protection tools in China in 2017, but came up empty.

He started the company that would eventually launch LeakZero in March last year, basing it on his belief that personal information should only be seen by the original user or an intended recipient.

His hope was that he would quickly find others in China who felt the same way.

“I don’t think I have the power to change people’s thoughts,” Yang said. “The only thing I can do is to meet people’s needs, and if the solution and timing is right, then this will take off.”

Users launch LeakZero’s encrypted messaging service and use a random name generator to create an ID. Then, when they open a messaging app such as WeChat, LeakZero is “layered” on top.

When they type a message, they can use LeakZero to turn their message into a nonsense string of letters and numbers in WeChat. The recipient must use LeakZero’s app to decrypt the message.

Yang said that users are superfans who spread the message and even help new joiners troubleshoot.

So far, his encrypted messaging app has more than 34,000 aliases — although by design, he does not know how many users are behind them.

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