WeChat’s new heat map feature lets users—and Chinese authorities—see where crowds are forming

China's Transition
China's Transition

As WeChat continues to evolve from China’s answer to WhatsApp into a smartphone Swiss army knife, it has steadily rolled out new features that can change consumer behavior, like micropayments for publishers or Uber-esque taxi booking. A feature unveiled in late September—WeChat Heat Maps—could help not just users, but the government, too.

In certain major cities—including Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu—WeChat users can input a location to see a heat map that measures foot traffic in a particular location. The app also provides data about crowd density in the area throughout the day and the week prior.

For example, a recent search for Tiananmen Square in Beijing showed light foot traffic around the peripheries of Mao’s memorial, indicated by the green circle at the bottom:

But moving westwards slightly showed far more activity, noted by red blotches.

The feature is tucked inside WeChat’s “City Services” tab, which also contains services like car booking, bill payment, and bus schedules. All of these services are available only to WeChat users within China.

It’s not yet clear how the data for WeChat’s heat maps is collected. Tencent, the company behind the app, wasn’t available for immediate comment. Citing a source familiar with the matter, a Chinese tech blog reported that Tencent leverages location-sensing technology (link in Chinese) on WeChat and QQ, WeChat’s predecessor, to estimate foot traffic in a specific location. Tencent did not respond to Quartz’s inquiries about the new feature.

Given that WeChat has over 600 million monthly active users—about two-thirds of all smartphone owners in China—the heat map feature has the potential to be quite accurate. For consumers, it could be useful when looking to avoid crowded areas. Advertisers, event organizers, or shopping center managers could also gain useful insights from it.

For authorities, the feature could serve other, less friendly, purposes. WeChat already uses location-tracking technology, and the Chinese government almost certainly has access to whatever user data it wants. Still, the heat maps are a telling reminder that WeChat can also be used as a tool for government control.

Besides tourist spots and movie theaters, protests and mass incidents also draw heavy foot traffic. If Chongqing residents, for example, flooded the Jiefangbei shopping area to form a demonstration, then Tencent or the government could issue a message through WeChat telling users to avoid it. Or, if police or other security forces noticed an unusual uptake in foot traffic in a quiet part of town, they’d have an indicator that something could be awry.

If Chinese smartphone owners already felt queasy about privacy while using WeChat, the heat maps feature will probably do little to alleviate their anxieties.

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