What Tencent left out when it denied spying on you over WeChat

My eyes are on you.
My eyes are on you.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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Owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent, WeChat has evolved from a WhatsApp clone into an all-encompassing system for just about everything in China. But as a billion people become ever more dependent on the app, there’s growing concern about its handling of user information. Tencent founder Pony Ma “must be watching all our WeChat every day,” said Li Shufu, chairman of Geely Automobile, at a business forum this week.

It’s an allegation from a big name that Tencent couldn’t afford not to deny immediately. Yesterday (Jan. 2) WeChat said in a statement (link in Chinese) on the social media platform:

WeChat does not store any user’s chat logs, which is only stored in users’ mobile phones, computers and other terminals.

WeChat will not use any content from user chats for big data analysis.

Given that WeChat’s technical model does not store or analyze user chats, the rumor that “we are watching your WeChat every day” is pure misunderstanding.

This is a false—or at least misleading—statement on many levels. First of all, under China’s sweeping cybersecurity law, implemented in June, all internet companies are required to store internet logs and relevant data for at least six months to assist law enforcement. A new regulation released in September also holds internet companies accountable for breaches of content rules, and require them to establish credit rating systems for chat group users, among other things. WeChat’s own privacy policy notes that it may need to “retain, disclose and use” user information in response to government requests.

Tencent didn’t reply to a request for comment.

Dissidents, activists and protesters have long reported that their WeChat accounts have been monitored by police who have acted on such information. In September, a member of China’s Hui Muslim minority group was sentenced to two years in prison for teaching the Koran in WeChat chat rooms. Last year, at least three Chinese citizens were arrested and jailed for making politically sensitive jokes on WeChat.

Previous studies from Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto, revealed that censorship on WeChat primarily occurs in group chats rather than one-on-one chats—often without the users themselves even noticing that their chats have been scrubbed. And the keywords that trigger censorship get updated as what the government deems sensitive material evolves.