Should Feds Be Afraid of a Popular Chinese Chat App?

dolphfyn/Shutterstock.com

WeChat’s U.S. footprint is increasing, despite allegations of spyware.

Even as trendy voice and text-messaging app WeChat, owned by China-based firm Tencent, has gained in popularity, the app is dogged by allegations it serves as an instrument of industrial espionage, according to U.S. technical experts.

A large number of Chinese Americans in California, including U.S. government contractors, use the tool for social communications -- either because they are drawn to its features or grew accustomed to using its Chinese version, "Weixin," when living in China.

The company denies the chat app is effectively a surveillance arm of the Chinese government. But the globalization of the app is causing particular alarm about intellectual property theft and U.S. national security

"The use of WeChat by Americans to communicate information that might be of interest to the Chinese government, including but not limited to military and trade secrets, is potentially problematic," said Eva Galperin, an expert on malware and Chinese platforms at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

App’s Popularity on the Rise Outside China

The app has come under scrutiny for others reasons as well.

Amid recent civil unrest in Hong Kong, some photos of pro-democracy protests posted by WeChat users in the city apparently have been censored. The Tibet Action Institute, which educates activists about cybersecurity, has warned refugees about using WeChat outside of China because of privacy concerns.

But while WeChat’s country of origin unnerves some, the ease with which it connects friends, family and business associates has expanded the app’s footprint in the U.S.

WeChat currently provides free texting, video calling, group instant messaging and much-adored virtual stickers for personalizing messages, among other features. Weixin, the Chinese version, offers a wider array of functions, many of which involve Chinese financial transactions, such as booking taxis or airplane flights.

There are currently about 100 million WeChat users outside of China. The company does not break that figure down by country, said Jennifer Hodges, the company’s first U.S. spokeswoman.

"We are popular, getting more popular, but we haven’t officially launched in the U.S,” she said. “We’re not really doing a marketing campaign here.”

WeChat has launched partnerships and conducts case studies with devotees of the app, such as Stanford University. Professional network LinkedIn and cloud provider Salesforce also recently became global business partners.

Hodges said the company complies with all laws in the countries in which it operates, including requests from law enforcement and government officials for user data.

“Every government seems to have some sort of ability to monitor these social media tools,” she said. “There are criticisms of Chinese social media. There are criticisms of U.S. social media.”

Hodges stressed that WeChat and the Chinese version, Weixin, are two separate products.

“No chats that happen outside of China go through a Chinese server in any way, shape or form,” she said.

Privacy Groups Fret Over Potential for Eavesdropping

WeChat's North American server is located in Canada, away from both NSA and the PLA --  the People’s Liberation Army of China. But as recently as 2013, tests conducted by The Guardian Project, a group of privacy software developers, showed that all chat data from phones in India, for example, flowed back to Shanghai.

The app's terms of service do not provide assurances that messages are kept off Chinese servers, some cyber researchers note.

"Nothing in those terms would constrain their service to segregate chats as they seem to say," said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology. "So, to the extent they do do that, it's at their word and not part of the legal agreement entered into by users with them through those terms."

And whether communications are secure against economic eavesdropping also remains up for debate.

"WeChat has the ability to access your phone's photos, videos, location data, activate microphones and more. It could be seen as spyware that a user opts into without realizing it," said Nathan Freitas, who heads The Guardian Project and directs technology strategy and training at the Tibet Action Institute.

Freitas is set to host a discussion on privacy concerns surrounding WeChat at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Both the United States and China conduct cyber-espionage for counterterrorism purposes, experts agree.

But "in the Chinese context, a fair amount of their electronic surveillance is focused on economic espionage, including obtaining data that is subject to U.S. export controls," said Christopher Swift, a national security lawyer with Foley & Lardner.

WeChat Gets High Marks for User Privacy

Tencent officials acknowledge that WeChat -- like every other Internet-based app -- can raise both questions and eyebrows when it comes to government espionage. But they say their app actually protects against identity theft and criminal activity better than many U.S. chat apps.

WeChat has earned a TRUSTe certification for maintaining users' privacy. The company was the first chat app to obtain that recognition, according to Tencent.

"Yes, there are groups afraid of surveillance," said Hodges, the company spokeswoman. "In addition to that, you have got this whole criminal element out there. For businesses and consumers, that’s what they care about. And we’re very, very proud of our record on that -- the security we put in place to prevent the criminals.”

WeChat's business model, it should be noted, does not involve profiting off customer data, in contrast to Facebook and other U.S. apps that sell user information to advertisers.

Still, some American privacy advocates seem largely ambivalent about the spying claims surrounding the app.

"From a less paranoid perspective, imagine if you are a Chinese user using Facebook, Gmail or, more likely, iMessage on your iPhone .. It would be easy to say that U.S. companies are doing this to spy on Chinese users, on behalf of the U.S. government," said Freitas, the head of The Guardian Project. "It is a bit of a glass houses argument, I know, but it is always good to see things from both sides."

(Image via dolphfyn/Shutterstock.com)

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