The Privacy Concerns of WeChat, China’s Favorite Super App

In collaboration with NordVPN

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Most people, when asked to name a Chinese mobile application, would not know what to say.

by Eugene Michaels

Unsurprisingly so, as such apps as Facebook, Instagram, Uber, or Seamless take up the majority of space on their mobile phones. Many of us use tens if not hundreds of Western-made applications to get through the day. What if we told you that the Chinese only need one. Therefore, if you were to know a single Chinese mobile app, it is WeChat.

This application challenges all the conventional prejudices about China’s copycat economy. In 2011 it did start as a mere instant messaging application, not too different from your regular WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. However, today, it replaces all the Western apps (well, it cannot replace the NordVPN app, which you should have turned-on at all times anyway) and offers many more features. To put it shortly, WeChat has become a super app.

In China, around 800 million people use Wechat actively every month, which is more than 60% of the population

A super app is a mobile application that combines a wide range of components and allows users to accomplish numerous tasks that would usually require several independent apps. WeChat can do almost anything all other Western apps can together. It is not just an application for messaging, video calling, or file sharing. Using WeChat one can also book plane and train tickets, rent a bike, order food, send money to a friend, pay rent, buy a new computer, and find the next best bar in the town – both the reviews and the route. All of these things can be done without ever pressing “back” button. Naturally, it is one of the most widely used applications. In China, around 800 million people use it actively every month, which is more than 60% of the population. It is a literal lifeline for anyone in China.

You may be thinking, what can be better than such an all-around convenience? Well, 800 million users combined with numerous features lead to an almost unimaginable data pool, which can be utilized by marketers for the nearly-perfect customization of advertisements and direct marketing. And also do not forget the government’s surveillance, as WeChat now may disclose any user information to the Chinese authorities as required.

In September 2017, WeChat had a policy update, which must be accepted by all the users for the application to work correctly. The update had a few new additions, which shocked a lot of people. This policy notified the users that their personal information, messages, and private log data would be stored and preserved by WeChat. This data includes a wide array of information about the user, such as the name, phone number, debit/credit card information, email address, even their specific location. Beyond these, as WeChat offers a vast variety of features, the application also knows about the users’ spending habits, regularly visited places, shopping preferences, and similar. Such type of information is worth gold for many advertisers and retail sites. Furthermore, as WeChat has to comply with the laws and regulations of the state, this data may also be disclosed to the government, if they need it.

The policy update did raise many eyebrows among users, who are concerned about their privacy and anonymity online. However, a lot of people in China were not surprised about such regulations coming into place. WeChat has for a long time been known to enforce self-censorship and surveillance mechanisms. Many controversial subjects and images are often deleted from the application’s “Moments” feature, and many more personal messages sent within China do not even appear in the chat, as they include forbidden words or phrases.

VPN China

Of course, nobody wishes to be followed around on the internet. In many Western countries, you have the option to turn on an ad-blocker, not accept site cookies, or use other anti-advertisement features. On the other hand, it is not as easy to hide from the government, or marketers, who do not take a turned on ad-blocker for a “no” and just know what you do every day or how often you go to a particular location. Nonetheless, it would still be best to use a VPN (eg., NordVPN) service anytime you use the Internet – in China or not. This way you will at least know that you have done everything you can to stay safe and protected.

Image design: matteo damiani

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Also published on Medium.

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