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Tencent denies storing WeChat records after Chinese billionaire reportedly questions monitoring

Tencent, operator of the popular WeChat messaging app, asks public to “rest assured” that it has neither the authority nor reason to look at users’ conversations

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 4:08pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 10:06pm

Tencent Holdings, whose WeChat messaging app has more than 1 billion users worldwide, said it does not store any user chat histories, after Chinese automotive industry tycoon Li Shufu reportedly slammed the company for invading user privacy.

The contents of WeChat conversations are stored only on the user’s mobile phone, computer or other terminal devices, WeChat said in a post on its official account on Tuesday. The social media app also does not use any of the content for Big data analysis, it said.

As WeChat neither stores nor analyses users’ chat content, it is purely a misconception to say that “we are watching your WeChat every day”, according to the statement. “Please rest assured that privacy has always been one of Wechat’s most important principles. We have neither the authority nor reason to look at your WeChat.”

Tencent’s WeChat has gained prominence in everyday usage in China and extended its use from being a communication tool and mobile payment channel to being used as a digital alternative to the national identification card. A Beijing court has also recently started accepting filings by people using the platform.

WeChat is top workplace communications app for 90 per cent of Chinese professionals

WeChat, officially launched in 2011 and known as Weixin in mainland China, has evolved into the country’s largest social network with 980 million monthly active users in the quarter ended September 30, according to Shenzhen-based Tencent.

The statement came after Li Shufu, chairman of Chinese carmaker Geely, criticised Tencent for invading the users’ privacy on WeChat. Tencent chairman Pony Ma Huateng “is watching us through WeChat every day because he can see whatever he wants”, said Li during a public event on January 1, according to Sina.com.

Li Yi, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences internet research centre, said it was amusing to learn that while Chinese telecommunications operators all store users’ messages for a long time, Tencent, whose users base is even larger and has been boosting its cloud capacity, said it never stores any users’ chat.

“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,” said Li. “How could WeChat fulfil the government’s task if it does not store or analyse conversations from its users?”

Tencent did not immediately respond to an email request for further comment on the company’s policy on providing information to the police or other authorities.

This is not the first time Tencent has had to address criticism of accessing WeChat users’ chat logs.

Last year, Tencent got into a dispute with telecommunications equipment maker Huawei Technologies over the right to collect user data from WeChat installed on Huawei’s smartphones. That prompted the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to tell both companies to resolve their dispute.

Tencent’s WeChat drives China’s late adopters to social media

China is not alone in the ongoing debate over privacy.

In the United States, Facebook, operator of the world’s largest social network, has been frequently criticised for its approach to user data from both consumers and regulators. In 2011, the US Federal Trade Commission argued Facebook deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on the site private while “repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public”.

Last month, France’s privacy watchdog ordered Facebook to stop collecting data from WhatsApp, the messaging platform it acquired in 2014. In response, the company repeatedly updated its privacy policy and settings in a bid to make it clearer for users.

Apple was thrust into the privacy spotlight after the FBI’s attempt to force the company to unlock an iPhone used by a terrorist during the San Bernardino attack in 2015, something Apple refused to do.

Critics have argued that by not sending personal data to the cloud, Apple may be limiting its artificial intelligence assistant Siri’s development by starving it of the information it needs to become more personalised, while Chinese companies are pouring resources into improving that capability.