China’s hit app has dissidents worried

PRIVACY INVASION::Activists believe Chinese security services are using WeChat to monitor in real time the movements of some of the app’s 200 million subscribers

The Guardian, London and Shanghai

Sun, Dec 09, 2012 - Page 5

Angela Zou hardly writes text messages now. Sitting at her desk in an ad agency, Zou asks her iPhone where to eat. When it buzzes seconds later, she lifts it to her ear for her colleague’s reply. The conversation goes back and forth before they decide on a place for lunch.

Like millions of others across Asia, Zou is using WeChat, a smartphone app developed in China, to send voice messages, snapshots and emoticons to her friends.

Now that its walkie-talkie-style messages have become ubiquitous, she said typing feels like hard work.

WeChat’s popularity has grown dramatically since its launch last year.

Tencent, which developed the app, said in September that its users had doubled in six months to 200 million. Most are in China, though it is being launched across Asia and has users in the US and the UK.

Historically, it has proved difficult for Chinese internet firms to expand beyond the country, but WeChat is being tipped as the first Chinese social media application with the potential to go global.

However, as WeChat grows, politicians and dissidents are voicing concerns. Activists fear that the voice messaging allows security officials to monitor users’ movements in real time, and when the app was launched in Taiwan on Oct. 18, legislators said they feared that it posed a threat to national security, through the potential exposure of private communications.

WeChat is similar to the US-based messaging service WhatsApp, but it does more. An amalgamation of social media tools akin to Twitter, Facebook and Skype, it comes in eight languages.

“I used WhatsApp before I came back to China [from studying abroad] and found all my friends were using WeChat,” said Zou, 25. “Now when I want to contact someone I use WeChat first.”

The app’s features include “Look Around,” which allows users to chat to strangers nearby, while “Moments” works like Instagram.

However, like other social media, WeChat can access users’ contacts, text messages and location via GPS. In China, some fear this could potentially make targeted users susceptible to surveillance.

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 (China’s internal security bureau).

“I took a chance and assumed WeChat was relatively safe,” he said. “But the Guobao surprised me with their ability to repeat my words or voice messages verbatim.”

Tencent, the country’s biggest internet firm, said: “We have taken user data protection seriously ... and at the same time, like other international peers, we comply with relevant laws in the countries where we have operations.”

Adam Segal, a Council on Foreign Relations cyber-security expert, said: “WeChat shouldn’t be singled out ... many technologies have some type of vulnerability.”