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WeChat reportedly spying on foreigners to feed censorship algorithms in China

A study has revealed that China-based WeChat is monitoring foreigners, prompting people with non-China-registered accounts to think twice about using the messaging app.

WeChat, owned by Chinese internet giant Tencent, is the most popular social media platform in China, and is also widely used in the rest of the world with 1 billion users globally.

However, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab claimed that the app, which follows China’s stringent censorship rules, also monitors messages shared by people registered with non-China-based phone numbers, feeding the content into censorship algorithms to help build up the database it uses to censor China-based accounts.

The conclusions were based on an experiment that started by sending politically sensitive content between non-China-registered accounts. Afterward, when the same content was sent between China-registered accounts, it was flagged and subsequently censored.

While accounts outside of China were not censored, they are reportedly subject to content surveillance, information on which was not found on any public documents and data access requests, including discussions with Tencent representatives.

Tencent responds

Citizen Lab clarified that there is no evidence that WeChat’s surveillance on international users was directed by the Chinese government. Tencent, however, told CNBC that it received the findings of the research, and that it was taking it “seriously” as the company considers “user privacy and data security” as core values.

“With regard to the suggestion that we engage in content surveillance of international users, we can confirm that all content shared among international users of WeChat is private. As a publicly listed global company we hold ourselves to the highest standards, and our policies and procedures comply with all laws and regulations in each country in which we operate,” a Tencent spokesperson told CNBC.

The accusations against WeChat follows similar claims against TikTok, another popular China-based app. To build user trust, the company behind the app opened the TikTok Transparency Center, a location where its moderators may be observed by outside experts.

It remains to be seen if Tencent will do something similar for WeChat, after the release of Citizen Lab’s research. The findings may also affect the app’s listing on Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store, as both platforms require developers to disclose the data that they collect.

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