The extremely popular Chinese chat app, WeChat, is being put under a microscope by The Citizen Lab. The researchers found in a study that not only is WeChat spying on Chinese users ‘chats, but it also looks in on foreigners’ chats with the goal of fueling its censorship algorithms.
It is no secret that China’s Internet isn’t like the internet in other parts of the world. Censorship is common and applications such as WeChat aren’t immune. The firm has been known to monitor all Chinese users’ chats as they pass 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 into a machine-learning system which is used in China to censor content. That means spying on WeChat isn’t limited to Chinese users, which is quite scary for anyone using the application.
While this is obviously a problem for most non-Chinese users, the biggest problem is that WeChat does not reveal that there is any such spying on foreign users. If it was not for The Citizen Lab’s study, users would have no idea that their conversations were being monitored with the aim of feeding the company’s censorship algorithm.
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Apps are required to disclose what information they collect from users on the Google Play Store and Apple App Store and it appears that WeChat is not doing that. It will be interesting to see how Google and Apple are responding to these findings or if either company is taking action against WeChat and its non-Chinese chat monitoring.