A report published by National Public Radio (NPR) on Thursday cited a considerable amount of evidence to demonstrate that Communist China is intercepting both domestic and foreign communications using the WeChat application, which is owned by China’s giant Tencent corporation. This would mean American users of WeChat are subject to surveillance by Chinese security services.
NPR noted WeChat has at least a billion monthly users in China, plus an unknown number of users worldwide — the Chinese corporation refuses to divulge the exact number. NPR’s best guess was that “tens of thousands” of Americans may use the application.
“Researchers say its use abroad has extended the global reach of China’s surveillance and censorship methods,” NPR warned.
China’s surveillance of WeChat messages was revealed when several users who engage in the sort of human rights activism frowned upon by the tyrants of Beijing noticed their messages were mysteriously vanishing before friends and colleagues could read them, even though they are American citizens, used WeChat outside of China, and registered for the service with American telephone numbers. Some of them reported every message they send to a chat group is intercepted and blocked, but they can still send messages to individuals.
One of the users who spoke to NPR, using an alias because he feared retaliation against family members living in China, expressed surprise that he was targeted for censorship because he didn’t see himself as a political activist.
“It isn’t shocking that China has that kind of censorship. The shocking piece is that China is exporting that kind of censorship to other parts of the world,” he said.
Communist China appears to be quietly monitoring far more messages than it actively blocks. Internet security analyst Victor Gevers of the GDI Foundation, previously famed for discovering insecure Chinese databases stuffed with vast amounts of information about social media users, found another such database packed with over 3.7 billion WeChat message in April:
From 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 the Chinese messages had a GPS location in China. 68% of the English messages were sent in China. More than 19 million were sent from outside 🇳 pic.twitter.com/Va8Lfk3dnw
— Victor Gevers (@0xDUDE) April 22, 2019
Gevers played around with WeChat and discovered that using too many of the keywords monitored by the surveillance system could trigger an automatic account block. He inferred that using the keywords in WeChat messages could also trigger Chinese intelligence to begin collecting copies of every message a user sends. NPR considered the stories told by some WeChat users and deduced the system might temporarily or sporadically block them at first as “punishment” for using banned terms, then switch to more serious measures if they continue speaking in a manner disliked by the Chinese Communist Party.
Gevers expressed a bit of sarcastic disappointment that his own name was not among the keywords, which included politically charged phrases like “Tiananmen” and the name of China’s president, Xi Jinping.
The 19 million WeChat message harvested by China from foreign sources included communications sent from South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Europe, South America, and the United States.
Gevers was astonished to discover that some Australian politicians are using WeChat and might be among the accounts monitored by Chinese intelligence. “Wait! What? So they can have been one of the 937,202 ‘flagged’ conversations recorded in Australia?” he asked.
NPR viewed WeChat censorship and monitoring as another disturbing data point in the global conversation about whether any Chinese corporation can be considered “private” or truly independent from the Communist Party:
Whether China’s government can compel companies to hand over data access is a key question facing the country’s major technology companies as they seek a larger share of world markets. For instance, telecommunications giant Huawei is trying to build a mobile network upgrade, known as 5G, around the world and says it would refuse Chinese government requests for data access.
But legal experts say national security trumps privacy in China, even if companies put up a fight. U.S. officials allege that Huawei is controlled by the Chinese government, something the company and China’s government have repeatedly denied.
“It’s a bit of a red herring I think to argue about what the law says or does not say,” says Donald Clarke, a George Washington University professor who specializes in Chinese law. Despite economic reforms, Clarke says, “China is essentially a Leninist state in which the government does not recognize any limits on its power.”
WeChat censorship is not a new subject. Internet security analysts noticed years ago that discussing subjects forbidden by the Chinese Communist Party could cause messages to mysteriously disappear, without any notification being sent to the originator of the message.
Earlier studies of WeChat suggested this was only happening to Chinese users who discussed politically sensitive topics, most of the forbidden phrases were expressed in Chinese, and usually only large discussions of sensitive issues involving many users attracted the censors. The more recent experiences chronicled by NPR make it clear that users outside China are now being monitored and censored, and more English phrases have been added to the trigger list.