More Evidence WeChat Is Recording Private Messages for Beijing to Spy on Users

May 1, 2018 Updated: May 1, 2018    

More evidence has emerged to support the widely held suspicion that China’s most popular messaging app, WeChat, is recording private messages between users, data which is then accessible by the Chinese regime, despite the app’s insistence that it is not spying on the 1 billion people worldwide who use it.

In a WeChat public post first published on April 28, the anti-corruption taskforce of Chaohu, a small city in China’s Anhui Province, boasted that it had made a breakthrough in an investigation of a corruption case by “retrieving” relevant WeChat messages that had been deleted on a suspect’s phone.

“The Chaohu Municipal Discipline Inspection and Supervision Commission in March retrieved a series of deleted WeChat chat messages from a suspect, hence enabling investigators to be more adaptive in the interrogations and allowed progress to be made in completing the investigation,” the now-deleted post said.

The post is a rare admission by the Chinese regime’s judicial agency that it could access private WeChat messages even after users have deleted the corresponding chat history on the phone, which would indicate that the messaging app is storing private data elsewhere.

Among Chinese netizens, many are again wondering whether their WeChat messages are being recorded and are not “private” at all.

Tencent, the Chinese tech giant that owns WeChat, responded to the incident by posting a statement on April 29 stating that “WeChat does not store any chat histories” and that only users’ phones and computers would have access to messages they sent out.

Article 21.3 of China’s new cybersecurity law, enacted in 2017, specifically mandates that internet companies “monitor and retain” selected network data for no less than six months. However, as early as 2000, a similar mandate existed in prior internet regulations, according to Wen Yunchao, a Chinese internet activist who now resides in New York.

Keeping a Record of Everything

The dominance of WeChat in China has been widely attributed to the company’s close collaboration with the Chinese regime in implementing self-censorship and surveillance mechanisms. WhatsApp and other international messaging apps that might have competed with WeChat have mostly been blocked or otherwise forced out of China’s massive market.

Unlike other messaging apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat does not provide end-to-end encryption between users. Instead, WeChat employs what it termed “transport encryption” that encrypts messages only between the user and WeChat’s servers, often located in Tencent’s data centers in Shanghai.

As a consequence, all WeChat “private” messages, even those among international users of WeChat, go through these servers in China before they are delivered. In addition to the extra security vulnerability such a process introduces, it also means that WeChat servers in China essentially keep a record of all messages.

A man walks past an advertisement for the WeChat social media platform at Hong Kong’s international airport, on August 21, 2017. (Richard A. Brooks/AFP/Getty Images)

For its part, Tencent has consistently insisted that its WeChat servers “delete the content of a message” once it is received by the intended user. However, The Epoch Times reported last September that WeChat had updated the wording of its privacy policy agreement, which implies that the company freely shares private user messages with the Chinese regime’s law enforcement agencies.

WeChat would “retain, preserve or disclose” users’ data to “comply with applicable laws or regulations,” the new user agreement says. Because the Chinese regime’s law enforcement agencies and security apparatus do not need a search warrant to seize a citizen’s property or private data, the regime would essentially have access to just about everything WeChat users send through the app.

A 2016 survey by Amnesty International that ranks the world’s most popular messaging apps in terms of privacy protection for users gave WeChat a score of 0 out of 100, meaning that users of WeChat receive little or no encryption for their communications and that the app is completely exposed to censorship and surveillance.

WeChat has recently exceeded 1 billion accounts worldwide, a benchmark that points to the app’s popularity and dominance in China. WeChat has also grown outside of China, as a large number of Chinese migrants, students, and travelers around the world use it overseas.

Inside China, WeChat has extensive working relationships with all levels of the Chinese state and has become an essential platform used in daily microtransactions, such as taxi-hailing, news services, and food delivery, among other uses.

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