China’s WeChat denies storage of user conversations

2 Jan 2018

WeChat app installation screen. Image: PixieMe/Shutterstock

China’s most popular messaging app has denied that it stores chat histories.

WeChat has close to 1bn users around the globe, and it is owned by Chinese commerce giant Tencent. It is the most used app of its kind in China, a country with well-publicised and strict regulations around the internet and access to certain websites.

Recently, a Chinese automotive businessman, Li Shufu, speculated that WeChat was monitoring the chats of its users on a daily basis, according to the South China Morning Post.

In China, all social media platforms are required to censor public posts deemed to be illegal by the Communist Party government. Within WeChat’s privacy policy, it says it’s possible that the company would need to retain and disclose user information “in response to a request by a government authority, law enforcement agency or similar body”.

Speaking at a public event, Li said: “We all know that many bad people, even terrorists, are also using WeChat to communicate. It should be the government’s requirement to monitor and track their conversations for the public good. How could WeChat fulfil the government’s task if it does not store or analyse conversations from its users?”

Firm denial from WeChat

WeChat swiftly issued a response to the allegations, saying that Li, the owner of Geely Holdings, was incorrect in his statement about alleged monitoring. WeChat said it “does not store any user’s chat history. That is only stored in users’ mobiles, computers and other terminals.

“WeChat will not use any content from user chats for big data analysis. Because of WeChat’s technical model that does not store or analyse user chats, the rumour that we are watching your WeChat every day is pure misunderstanding.”

Tencent could make improvements in terms of privacy

Although the firm has flatly denied accusations of monitoring, Tencent is still not doing enough to protect the privacy of its users.

According to a 2016 report from Amnesty International, Tencent came last in an examination of popular messaging apps’ privacy protection measures. “Not only did it fail to adequately meet any of the criteria, but it was the only company which has not stated publicly that it will not grant government requests to access encrypted messages by building a ‘backdoor’.”

Firms such as Tencent and Weibo have been subject to penalties in recent months as the government deemed that firms had more work to do in terms of efficient and comprehensive censorship of online content. Blocked websites in China include Twitter, Google, Slack and YouTube among thousands of others.

WeChat app installation screen. Image: PixieMe/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects