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Chinese internet giant Tencent is said to have been monitoring content posted by foreign users on its popular email service WeChat to help it fine-tune censorship on its home platform.
WeChat has more than one billion users worldwide. It is the most popular messaging app in China and rooted in everyday life, allowing people to do everything from payments to hailing taxis.
Surveillance and censorship of social media and messaging platforms in China are common. Companies that manage such services often delete or block content that may offend Beijing.
But Citizen Lab, a research center that is part of the University of Toronto, said in a report released Thursday that “documents and images shared between unregistered accounts in China are subject to content monitoring and are used to constitute the database WeChat uses to censor accounts registered in China. “
Tencent told CNBC it has received the report and is taking it “seriously”, adding that “user privacy and data security are core values” of the company.
“Regarding the suggestion to engage in monitoring international user content, we can confirm that all content shared among international WeChat users is private. As a global publicly traded company, we comply with the highest standards, as well as our policies and procedures comply with all laws and regulations of each country in which we operate, “said a spokesperson for the company.
The revelations come as the United States becomes more and more concerned about the flow of data from applications and services owned by Chinese companies. Last year, Washington launched a national security review into the acquisition of Musica.ly by the social media application TikTok in 2017. TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance.
The Citizen Lab has made it clear, however, that “there is no evidence attributing Tencent’s surveillance behaviors imposed on international WeChat users to the leadership of the Chinese government.”
The research organization drew its conclusions on the basis of an experiment carried out. They ran two different scenarios – one where they communicated entirely between accounts not registered in China and a second where they communicated with an account registered in China.
They sent images and documents to unregistered accounts in China to see if they would be recovered by Tencent’s censorship algorithm. If they were, users in China would not be able to see this content.
“Such surveillance was discovered by confirming that politically sensitive content that was sent exclusively between accounts not registered in China was identified as politically sensitive and subsequently censored when transmitted between accounts registered in China, without having been previously sent to or between China – registered accounts, “said Citizen Lab.
The researchers made it clear that even though foreign WeChat accounts were not censored, they were subject to surveillance which then informed Tencent’s censorship in China.
The revelations paint a picture of a large technology company in China crossing its national borders to monitor the content of its international users.
Previously, there was no evidence that the Tencent censorship machine affected overseas users. But the report now shows that Tencent is monitoring content with its foreign users to help it tighten censorship at home.
– This story has been updated to reflect Tencent’s comments after the article was published.