The Chinese social media platform WeChat is warning users outside China that their data will be stored on servers inside the country, RFA has learned.
A number of overseas WeChat users received a notification on Sept. 6, warning that “personal data [including] likes, comments, browsing and search history, content uploads, etc.” will be transmitted to China.
A YouTuber living in France who gave only the pseudonym Miss Crook said she was shocked to receive a French translation of the same message.
“I clicked through and … this message popped up, so I automatically clicked cancel,” she said. “It’s becoming clear what the difference is between a democracy and a dictatorship.”
She said the move would likely affect large numbers of Chinese nationals and emigres living overseas.
“Overseas Chinese have become very dependent on WeChat, but is it really that important?” she said. “We can actually stop using it completely, so we shouldn’t let them confuse us. It’s really not that important.”
Faced with mounting international concern over privacy protection, WeChat said in September 2021 that it had “separated” its data storage facilities for domestic and international users, asking overseas users to re-sign the terms and conditions to keep using the app, which many people rely on to send money to people in China, make purchases in Chinese yuan, and stay in touch with friends and family.
Former Sina Weibo censor Liu Lipeng said the move was largely a cosmetic one, however.
“Last year … WeChat re-signed its agreements with all overseas users, but everything on there except for one-to-one chats have to use WeChat protocols,” Liu said. “So the moment you click OK, you are back in [the Chinese version] again.”
“Everything you write is still available [to the Chinese authorities], so it’s basically sleight of hand. Nothing has changed,” he said. “You are a still a WeChat user.”
U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao said WeChat’s parent company Tencent is already required under China’s Cybersecurity Law to assist the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with any data it says it needs, as are all of the other internet service providers and social media platforms in China.
“The Chinese government has always used WeChat inside China as a tool to control society and censor speech, which is part and parcel its program of high-tech totalitarian control,” Teng told RFA.
“It has also always used WeChat as a way to export its censorship beyond its borders, to the United States and other countries,” he said.
“Western countries should consider re-evaluating WeChat as a threat to national security, data security, personal privacy and so on,” Teng said. “[They] cannot allow China’s censorship system to extend into the West and all around the world.”
Concerns have been growing for some time over overseas censorship and surveillance via WeChat, with the U.S. banning any U.S.-based individuals or entities from doing business with Tencent, and rights activists describing it as a “prison” that keeps overseas users within reach of CCP law enforcement operations.
Launched by Tencent in 2011, WeChat now has more than 1.1 billion users, second only to WhatsApp and Facebook, but the company keeps users behind China’s complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship known as the Great Firewall, even when they are physically in another country.
The app is also used by China’s state security police to carry out surveillance and harassment of dissidents and activists in exile who speak out about human rights abuses in the country, or campaign for democratic reform.
And it’s not just Chinese nationals who are being targeted.
In May 2020, researchers at CitizenLab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto warned that anyone using WeChat, even if they have lived their whole lives outside China, is “subject to pervasive content surveillance that was previously thought to be exclusively reserved for China-registered accounts.”
Documents and images transmitted entirely among non-China-registered accounts undergo content surveillance wherein these files are analyzed for content that is politically sensitive in China, the report, titled “We Chat, They Watch,” said.
The report warned of “very serious” security and privacy issues associated with WeChat and other Chinese apps, and called on app stores to highlight risks to users before they download such apps.
And a recent report detailing massive amounts of user data collected by TikTok also sparked privacy concerns around the hugely popular video app, which is owned by Chinese internet company ByteDance.
In a technical analysis of TikTok’s source code, security research firm Internet 2-0 found the app, which is the sixth most-used globally with forecast advertising revenues of U.S. $12 billion in 2022, was “overly intrusive” and data collection was “excessive.”
While TikTok claims user data is stored in the U.S. and Singapore, the report found evidence of “many subdomains in the iOS app scattered around the world,” including Baishan, China.
As of September 2021 TikTok had more than one billion active users globally, 142.2 million of whom are in North America.
The report found that TikTok makes use of a number of permissions considered “dangerous” by industry experts.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.