September 30, 2020

WeChat appears to be spying on foreigners’ chats to fuel censorship algorithm

In a study, researchers found that WeChat is looking in on chats from foreigners without disclosing that it's doing so.

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Source: WeChat

The incredibly popular Chinese chat app WeChat is being put under a microscope by The Citizen Lab. In a study, the researchers found that not only is WeChat spying on the chats of Chinese users, but it’s also looking in on chats from foreigners with the goal of fueling its censorship algorithms.

It’s no secret that the internet in China is not like the internet in other parts of the world. Censorship is common, and apps like WeChat aren’t immune. The company has been known to monitor all of the chats of Chinese users as they come through.

However, the study found that images and documents shared between users outside of China are scanned and flagged for potentially politically sensitive content. Anything that matches is hashed and flagged when someone shares them with a Chinese account. The flagged content is fed to a machine-learning system that is used to censor content in China. That means WeChat spying isn’t limited to Chinese users, which is quite scary for anyone using the app.

While that’s obviously a problem for most non-Chinese users, the biggest issue is that WeChat doesn’t disclose that any of this spying on foreign users is happening. Were it not for the study by The Citizen Lab, users would have no idea their conversations were being monitored with the purpose of feeding the company’s censorship algorithm.

On the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, apps are required to disclose what information they’re collecting from users, and it appears WeChat is not doing that. It’ll be interesting to see how Google and Apple respond to these findings and if either company takes action against WeChat and its undisclosed monitoring of non-Chinese chats.

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