WeChat Monitors Files Shared by International Users to Bolster Censorship in China
WeChat, a popular messaging app with more than 100 crore users on board worldwide, is monitoring documents and images shared by users registered outside China, to censor these materials from its Chinese users.
The app, backed by Internet giant Tencent, silently subjects its international users to surveillance, analysing files shared by them using a remote server, according to a study by Citizen Lab, the research group that earlier revealed the Pegasus attack on WhatsApp.
Researchers of the University of Toronto’s security research group Citizen Lab have determined that WeChat screens documents and images people share through the platform when using phone number not registered in China.
The app uses this remote server that conducts the surveillance process, without giving any signs to end-users, according to Citizen Lab. If the server recognises the content as politically sensitive, it adds a digital signature in the form of an MD5 hash, to flag that file so that it can be kept away from China-registered users.
Real-time censorship using automated surveillance
The study included one instance in which the researchers sent a cartoon of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo — an image deemed sensitive in China — from an international account into a chat group with other users also not registered in China.
Infamous for censoring content
It is unclear whether the move by WeChat to screen content from non-China registered accounts is politically motivated. A report by The Wall Street Journal dated March 6 highlighted that various social media platforms in China face punishments if any content that is found objectionable by the government overrides their filters.
As per the official data included in the recent quarterly results, WeChat has over 116.4 crore users worldwide. The app has a strong presence in China, thanks to the super-app design that means it’s used for everything, from communication services such as payments, shopping, cab-hailing, video conferences, and gaming among others.