Evidence that Big Brother is watching you on WeChat

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WeChat is pretty much an app you can’t live without in China nowadays. The all-in-one, multipurpose application makes your life easier with its highly integrated mobile payment, online booking, e-governance and even wealth-management services that are all a breeze to use.

But first and foremost, it’s a ubiquitous instant messaging service on which more than a billion users send and receive an astronomical number of messages at any given time.

When Li Shufu, chairman of the Chinese automobile juggernaut Geely, asked “Pony” Ma Huateng earlier this year if the Tencent chief had backdoor access to each and every message that Li sent via WeChat, people were skeptical about the response from the Shenzhen-based tech leviathan that owns WeChat that users could rest assured about the privacy of anything they say or do on the app.

Yet there has been another revelation, this time by a veteran Beijing-based journalist, about how China’s national and public security apparatus and its underlings in Shenzhen are working hand in hand with Tencent’s WeChat team to keep track of all of its users.

Above: A clip posted by Chinese journalist Gao Yu on her Twitter account shows the interface of a WeChat monitoring system used by national and public security agents in Shenzhen, where WeChat operator Tencent is based.

Gao Yu, a dissident freelance journalist known for her reports that stray from the official line, revealed on her Twitter account that the Nanshan district sub-bureau of the Shenzhen Municipal Public Security Bureau maintains a dedicated team right next door at Tencent’s headquarters to intercept, monitor and back up messages and chat history of any WeChat user real-time, no matter where the user is or whether or not he or she is online.

Information on a user and on his friends is readily accessible through WeChat’s back-end systems, according to Gao.

“Deleting your chat history on your device is futile when all messages are filtered and kept by the central computer,” she wrote.

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Night view of Tencent’s headquarters building in Shenzhen’s Nanshan district. Photo: Tencent

And through key-word searches and big-data analytics based on the plethora of information collected by WeChat, including chat history, payment and booking records, and location services, a highly detailed profile of a particular user can be established in no time.

There’s no exaggeration in the claim that “Big Brother” may know you better than you know yourself. And once a user is targeted for leaking state secrets or propagating politically incorrect thoughts or ideology, public and national security agents can easily track him or her down.

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Some allege that China’s security agents and Internet censors can easily establish a profile of any WeChat user based on information the app collects. Photo: Handout

Chinese Internet censors have also stepped up their scrutiny of messages and files exchanged through WeChat chat groups and reminded administrators of groups of more than 100 users to discipline chats and thoughts of members or risking receiving “collateral punishments” once a member is held responsible for libelous or derogatory comments about the Communist Party of China and top leaders.

There has been another allegation that, other than clandestinely backing up a user’s chat history and scanning his phone and uploading information, WeChat may also expose a user’s real-time location.

Tencent has hit back calling this a conspiracy theory, adding that multiple layers of security and privacy measures are in place and a user has the authority to grant and disable WeChat’s access to his phone’s photos, contacts, GPS records and so forth.

Tencent has categorically denied all allegations.

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