It takes one App to Censor 1 Billion People
There are two main recommendations related to the Internet for people who settle in China:
- Installing a VPN in the computer,
- Download WeChat in the mobile phone.
The first, a Virtual Private Network, allows users to get around the Great Cybernetic Wall of the Asian giant redirecting traffic through servers located in different countries, so that the user can access an Internet without censorship and with all the services to which it is accustomed to in the West.
The second is an indispensable application for living in China: WeChat will be the first thing that new friends ask for to be in contact. It has also replaced the traditional business cards that all business guides insist that It has to be offered with both hands, and it is useful both to pay with the mobile phone and to order a taxi or pay the bills for electricity, gas and water.
WeChat is the Swiss Army knife of Chinese cyberspace. It is a ‘superapp’ used by almost one billion people in which more than one million different mini-programs can now be nested.
They are applications of less than 10 megabytes developed to work in the ecosystem of WeChat, and are especially practical because they avoid the need to download individual apps for all kinds of daily tasks: from making a purchase ‘online’ in the supermarket, to ordering food at home or rent a bicycle. There are few things that cannot be done without leaving WeChat. It is an ‘all in one’.
But for the Chinese authorities the practicality of the application developed by the giant Tencent resides in that it facilitates the censorship of the contents that are published in its social network and it represents an open door to the privacy of all its users.
Like any other Internet company, WeChat itself recognizes that it shares user data with the Chinese government and that it censors the contents that the regime considers inappropriate.
“The law in China gives Authorities the power to require different types of data. Logically, we have to comply with the law, ” acknowledges a Tencent employee who prefers to remain anonymous.
“In countries like the United States or those of the European Union, a court order is necessary, but in China, a call from security agents is enough,” he adds.
Thus, it is not surprising that in 2016 Amnesty International considered WeChat one of the applications that least protects users against the excesses of the Authorities.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Government also accesses private conversations and then uses them against its users.
This is confirmed by the Chinese assistant of a foreign journalist who had several encounters with the police. She was also interrogated. “They had information that they could only have obtained by reading WeChat conversations, and, in the end, they recognized that this is how they got it.
“We learned everything’, they told me to intimidate me,” he said on condition of anonymity. As if that were not enough, those conversations will soon be able to be used as evidence in legal proceedings without the need to be notarized.
Interestingly, not even clearing the messages seems enough to be safe. Because, although Tencent assures that it does not keep its users’ chats or audio messages on its servers, the Chinese authorities have acknowledged that they are capable of recovering those that have already been deleted.
According to the Municipal Disciplinary Oversight Commission of Chaohu, its specialists managed to retrieve messages from a suspect to determine who else they should question in relation to a corruption case. Several people were convicted.
The problem is that this supervision of WeChat does not seem to be confined solely to criminal contexts. Everything points to the fact that Network “police” also monitor private conversations in search of political dissidents.
Judging by several recent cases, anyone can be targeted. The online newspaper of Hong Kong Inkstone spoke with five users who have had their accounts closed for allegedly “spreading malicious rumors that violate current laws and regulations”.