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WeChat accused of sharing users’ personal data with Chinese authorities [Update: WhatsApp now blocked in China]

Following the news that WeChat is sharing personal info with the Chinese government, WhatsApp has now also been blocked in the nation.

Published onSeptember 26, 2017

Update 26/09: We reported yesterday on news that China's most popular messaging app was sharing personal user information with authorities. This was confirmed in an updated WeChat privacy statement, indicating that the Chinese government was seeking greater access to citizens online habits. Following this, the Facebook-owned WhatsApp app has now been blocked in the nation.

The news was reported by The New York Times (via Android Central), which suggested that China may have developed "specialized software" specifically to disrupt the messages. Videos, images, and file sharing through WhatsApp had already been blocked in the region earlier this year, though text-based messages could still be sent. WhatsApp's end-to-end message encryption is believed to be the main reason behind the ban, which is said to have already caused significant disruptions in the nation.

China is currently preparing for the Communist Party's congress which begins October 18. This is held once every five years to decide who will lead the party. It is expected to reinforce the power of President Xi Jinping — under whom a number of controversial and at times bizarre internet restrictions have been put in place.

WeChat has confirmed that it’s sharing users’ personal info with the Chinese government. The company has updated its privacy statement declaring that it must do so in order to “comply with applicable laws or regulations”, among other things.

Update: WeChat reached out to state that it “recently updated its privacy policy to reflect the enhancement of user privacy and data protection laws in China” and that “this fundamentally pro-privacy update was misinterpreted as an admission that we send all user data to the Chinese government.”

Here’s the full statement:

WeChat and Weixin consider user privacy and data protection not just a regulatory obligation but also a key part of the user experience. Weixin has recently updated its privacy policy to reflect the enhancement of user privacy and data protection laws in China.
Unfortunately this fundamentally pro-privacy update was misinterpreted as an admission that we send all user data to the Chinese government. This is not and has never been the case. Our server to user messages are encrypted.  In case of criminal investigations, we will provide certain information to law enforcement agencies when legally compelled to do so, which is in line with international practices.
More generally, we would like to emphasize the following points:
1) Protection of user data is a core value of the Weixin/WeChat team, and the updated privacy policy was part of an effort to improve upon this core value.
2) The updated privacy policy applies to Weixin users who have registered in China.
3) Reflecting different regulatory requirements (e.g., GDPR), a different privacy policy applies to users of WeChat (basically non-China users).  This policy is reviewed and certified by TRUSTe on an ongoing basis.

The data WeChat shares with the authorities includes names, contacts, email addresses, and in some cases even your exact location. Online searches performed while using the app can also be seen by the company.

WeChat tackles Skype with the addition of landline and mobile calling

For those of you who don’t know, WeChat is the most popular messaging app in China with well over 600 million users. It’s an alternative to services like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, a lot of which are actually blocked in the country. The Chinese government is doing everything it can to get rid of foreign services in an effort to control online activities and get access to as much sensitive data from local companies as possible.

Of course, WeChat is not exclusive to China, as it is available to anyone who wants to use it. You can download it to your device via the Play Store, which is something we don’t recommend at this point due to privacy concerns. There are plenty of similar apps available including Skype and Google Allo, in addition to those already mentioned in this post.

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