Tencent monitored overseas WeChat users to sharpen censorship in China

The Wechat logo.

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Chinese internet giant Tencent reportedly monitored content posted by foreign users on its highly popular WeChat messaging service in order to help it sharpen censorship on its home platform.

WeChat has over a billion users worldwide. It is the most popular messaging app in China and anchored in everyday life, allowing people to do everything from payments to calling taxis.

Surveillance and censorship of social media and messaging platforms in China is rife. Companies that run such services often remove or block content that may offend Beijing.

But Citizen Lab, a research center that is part of the University of Toronto, said in a report released Thursday, “Documents and images shared between unregistered accounts in China are subject to content monitoring and are used to constitute the database WeChat uses to censor accounts registered in China. “

Tencent told CNBC it received the report and took it “seriously”, adding that “user privacy and data security are core values” of the company.

“Regarding the suggestion that we engage in monitoring international user content, we can confirm that all content shared among international WeChat users is private. As a global publicly traded company, we are comply with the highest standards and our policies and procedures comply with all laws and regulations of each country in which we operate, ”said a spokesperson for the company.

The revelations come as the United States is increasingly concerned about the flow of data from apps and services owned by Chinese companies. Last year Washington launched a national security review in the acquisition of Musica.ly by social media app TikTok in 2017. TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance.

Citizen Lab clarified, however, that “there is no evidence attributing Tencent’s surveillance behaviors imposed on international WeChat users to the leadership of the Chinese government.”

The research organization drew its conclusions based on an experiment they conducted. They ran two different scenarios – one where they fully communicated between unregistered accounts in China and a second where they communicated with a registered account in China.

They sent pictures and documents among registered non-Chinese accounts to see if they would be recovered by Tencent’s censorship algorithm. If they were, users in China wouldn’t be able to see this content.

“Such surveillance was discovered by confirming that politically sensitive content that was sent exclusively between unregistered accounts in China was identified as politically sensitive and then censored when transmitted between accounts registered in China, without having been previously sent to or between China registered accounts, ”Citizen Lab said.

The researchers made it clear that even though the foreign WeChat accounts were not censored, they were subject to surveillance which then informed Tencent’s censorship in China.

The revelations paint a picture of a large tech company in China going beyond its national borders to monitor content for its international users.

Previously, there was no evidence that Tencent’s censorship machine affected users overseas. But the report now shows that Tencent is monitoring the content of its overseas users to help tighten censorship in its country.

– This story has been updated to reflect comments from Tencent that came after the article was published.

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