Australia’s Defense Department Bans WeChat, China’s Popular Instant Messaging Platform

March 13, 2018 Updated: October 8, 2018

In another blow to WeChat, China’s popular instant messaging and social media platform, Australia’s defense department has banned its staff from using the app on their work phones, according to a March 11 report by The Australian Financial Review.

“Defense does not provide or support the use of unauthorized software, including the WeChat social media application, on Defense mobile devices,” a spokesperson told the Australian publication but did not elaborate on why the app was banned.

WeChat does not provide end-to-end encryption between users, making messages vulnerable to third parties. In addition, all messages are stored on WeChat’s servers in China. Though the company has insisted that it deletes the messages once they are received by the intended user, The Epoch Times has reported that the company’s privacy policy agreement, updated in September 2017, stated that it would “retain, preserve, or disclose” users’ data to comply with the Chinese regime’s “applicable laws or regulations.”

Epoch Times Photo
WeChat is seen on a mobile device in a coffee shop in China on March 12, 2014. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

In an Amnesty International report on the privacy protections of commonly used messaging apps around the world, WeChat scored 0.

Citing a cybersecurity expert with connections to the Australian government, the Financial Review said officials were concerned about the vulnerability of user data on the app.

“The understanding is that applications like WeChat have a higher ability to aggregate and monitor data,” the unnamed source told the newspaper. “They [Defense] would be very nervous about software being loaded onto a device which could then access a secure military network.”

WeChat works closely with the Chinese regime to censor content that it dislikes. In several documented cases, Chinese and non-Chinese citizens have been punished for posting messages the state disapproves of, including Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che, who was recently sentenced to prison for spreading pro-democracy messages via WeChat and other social media platforms to a mainland Chinese audience. This was in spite of the fact that Lee had sent those messages from outside of China

Epoch Times Photo
In a video released by the Yueyang Intermediate People’s Court, Lee Ming-che reads a statement admitting his guilt for “subverting” the Chinese government. (Screenshot via Weibo)

In December 2017, India’s defense ministry similarly issued a list of more than 40 Chinese-developed smartphone apps, including WeChat, that were considered “spyware,” requesting that all security personnel remove those apps from their phones. “Use of these apps by our force personnel can be detrimental to data security, having implications on the force and national security,” the notice said, according to The Indian Express.

And in May 2017, Russia also blocked WeChat, on grounds that the company violated a Russian regulation that foreign tech firms must store personal data of Russian users in Russia, according to a report by South China Morning Post.

Meanwhile, in the United States, American intelligence agencies cautioned against government employees’ use of phones made by Huawei and ZTE, both Chinese regime-friendly firms, noting the risk of state-sponsored espionage and cyberattacks.

U.S. lawmakers have also proposed a bill that would ban government agencies from procuring contracts with Huawei and ZTE.

Follow Annie on Twitter: @annieeenyc