Chinese app WeChat messages sent outside of China are also censored, researchers say: NPR
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Updated September 19, 10:23 a.m.ET
The popular Chinese messaging app WeChat is Zhou Fengsuo’s most reliable communication link with China.
That’s because he hasn’t returned for over two decades. Zhou, a human rights activist, was a university student in 1989, when pro-democracy protests erupted in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. After a year in prison and another in political re-education, he moved to the United States in 1995.
But WeChat often performs poorly. Zhou began to notice in January that his newsgroups could not read his messages. “I realized this because I expected feedback [on a post] but there has been no return, “Zhou told NPR from his New Jersey home.
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China’s cyberspace is one of the most watched and censored in the world. This includes WeChat. Owned by Tencent, one of the largest Chinese companies, the chat-meets-payment app has more than a billion monthly users in China and now also serves users outside the country, although it does does not disclose how much. Researchers say its use abroad has extended the global reach of China’s surveillance and censorship methods.
As Chinese tech companies expand their presence outside of China, they are also scanning vast amounts of data from overseas users. Every day, millions of WeChat conversations held inside and outside of China are reported, collected and stored in a database connected to public security agencies in China, according to cyber researchers.
“The intention of protecting people by building these systems disappears as soon as you don’t secure them at all,” says Victor Gevers, the Dutch co-founder of the nonprofit. GDI Foundation, an open source data security collective.
Zhou is not the only one experiencing recent problems. NPR spoke to three other U.S. citizens who were barred from sending messages to WeChat groups or whose accounts were frozen earlier this year, despite registering with U.S. phone numbers.
“No matter where the user is, as long as I send a message to more than three people, my message cannot be seen in any group,” said Stephen, a Chinese-American technology professional. He declined to share his full name because he feared his criticism could lead to reprisals against him or his family from the Chinese authorities, where he travels often and where most of his family live..
Stephen is baffled that he has been blocked. He does not consider himself political. “It’s not shocking that China has this kind of censorship,” he said. “What is shocking is that China is exporting this kind of censorship to other parts of the world.”
According to the Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto internet watch group, WeChat’s parent company Tencent has created an extraordinarily advanced censorship algorithm to automatically identify keyword combinations in online posts and articles. that it then blocks. Censorship occurs whenever a WeChat account registered in China receives or sends a message with phrases flagged.
“By using this type of technique, Tencent has the ability to target content more precisely,” said Jeffrey Knockel, postdoctoral fellow at Citizen Lab.
“We suspect humans have some control over adding things to the list [of filtered keywords], but it’s an open question whether these automated methods can add themselves to the list, ”says Knockel.
As of 3,784,309,399 messages, 3,698,798,784 were written in Chinese.
59,378,236 in English and 26,132,379 in another language. 98% of Chinese messages had a GPS location in China. 68% of messages in English were sent to China. More than 19 million were sent from outside 🇨🇳 pic.twitter.com/Va8Lfk3dnw
– Victor Gevers (@ 0xDUDE) April 22, 2019
Dutch researcher Gevers has also studied Chinese social platforms and has exhibited a large number online vulnerabilities in their networks.
In March, Gevers discovered a Chinese database storing more than a billion WeChat conversations, including more than 3.7 billion messages, and tweeted his findings. Each post had been tagged with a GPS position, and many users included the users’ national identification numbers. Most of the messages were sent inside China, but over 19 million of them were sent by people outside the country, mainly from the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Australia.
He says the system resembles the global surveillance methods used by the United States National Security Agency.
For decades, the United States has had unparalleled abilities to monitor Internet traffic passing through servers within its borders. But Chinese tech companies like Tencent are now global, which means this net is believed to sweep away information about users outside of China.
“I think this really raises serious questions and challenges for users but also for regulators outside of China,” said Sarah Cook, senior research analyst at Freedom House, an independent democracy watchdog.
Estimates of the total number of WeChat accounts outside of China are hard to come by, and the number is believed to be low – perhaps tens of thousands – in the United States compared to popular networks like Facebook and its Messenger and WhatsApp platforms.
Cook points out that WeChat is used internationally not only by traveling Chinese citizens, but also by politicians in democracies communicating with Chinese voters and dissident communities. “They’re communicating with someone else outside of China who has WeChat, but they still mostly operate under the rules in China,” she said.
For some, the censorship was done in stages. For example, a user may be temporarily blocked, as to encourage better behavior. Sometimes a cat-and-mouse game ensues between censors and users.
Last February, David, a Chinese-American doctor who does not want to use his last name for fear of reprisals against his relatives still living in China, noticed his posts on WeChat’s Moments. – similar to a Facebook news feed – were wrong. Undeterred, he continued to share politically charged articles.
Within days, he couldn’t post any more to any group chats: “Although I could read other people’s posts, when I posted my post, no one could see it. It was as if I wasn’t there, ”he says.
David then recalled his sharing of news articles, limiting his conversations to trivial chatter and music sharing. His group chat function was quickly restored. Emboldened, he began to share his political messages in group chats, only to find himself stranded again.
“Now I am very careful [on WeChat]. I feel like this censorship has affected both my psychology and my behavior, ”says David. He says he abandoned his old account and created a new WeChat account to talk to relatives in China. He lost thousands of contacts in the process. “It’s just my main connection to my Chinese friends inside and outside of China.”
Tencent, owner of WeChat headquartered in Shenzhen, southeast, declined to comment.
Whether the Chinese government can force companies to cede access to data is a key question facing the country’s big tech companies as they seek a greater share of global markets. For example, telecom giant Huawei is trying to roll out a mobile network upgrade, known as 5G, around the world and says it will deny the Chinese government’s data access requests. But legal experts say national security trumps privacy in China, even as companies fight back. US officials allege that Huawei is controlled by the Chinese government, which the company and the Chinese government have repeatedly denied.
“It’s a bit of a red herring, I think, to discuss what the law says and doesn’t say,” said Donald Clarke, a professor at George Washington University specializing in Chinese law. Despite economic reforms, says Clarke, “China is essentially a Leninist state in which the government recognizes no limits on its power.
Back in New Jersey, activist Zhou says he will continue to use WeChat despite its vulnerabilities. His work depends too much on it.
“I have to use it to communicate. I just have to know what’s going on [in China]. But it’s very dangerous, “he concedes.” It’s a natural choice. We have to use WeChat even though I know it is under constant surveillance. “
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated that Victor Gevers had found certain word patterns on WeChat that had been flagged and archived. NPR learned that its analysis used a set of keywords previously created by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. We have edited the story to reflect the original research conducted by the Citizen Lab.