China consumer group accuses Baidu of snooping on users of its smartphone apps

A consumer protection group in China’s Jiangsu province has sued Baidu for infringing on the rights of consumers, accusing the Beijing-based internet company of gaining access to user information without consent.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 7:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 January, 2018, 8:45pm

Baidu Inc., the operator of China’s largest online search engine, has been accused by a Chinese consumer rights protection group of collecting personal information without obtaining users’ permission, the latest instance of the country’s tech giants facing scrutiny over the way they handle personal data.

The Jiangsu Consumer Council filed a lawsuit against New York-listed Baidu for illegally gaining consumers’ personal data. A court in Nanjing, the capital city of Jiangsu province, accepted the lawsuit on January 2, according to a statement published on the council’s website.

Two of Baidu’s apps – its search app and mobile browser – are named by the council, for gaining access to users’ messages, phone calls, contacts and other data without their prior consent, according to the statement by the council.
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Baidu said it was aware of the litigation and had conducted multiple rounds of talks with the group over the past several months to explain and address its concerns.
“During the communication with the Jiangsu Provincial Consumer Protection Committee, we explained in detail the scenarios under which we use authorisation to access information – for instance, relevant Baidu applications’ access to geographic location, text messages and address books are within the scope of reasonable use,” Baidu said in a statement.
The company added that its mobile app does not have the capability of monitoring phone calls and will never ask for the authorisation. Baidu will continue to communicate with the consumer group and work with them to ensure the security of personal information on the internet and in other industries, it said.
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The lawsuit makes Baidu the latest among China’s top three internet giants to come under public scrutiny amid rising consumer concerns over data privacy in the country.

Tencent Holdings and Alibaba Group Holding, the two largest Chinese technology companies by market value, had to clarify to the public how they handled their information after they came under fire for the way they handle or gain users’ data.

Earlier this week, Alibaba-backed Ant Financial has apologised for making the opt-in to its social credit scoring service the default when users opened a new report in the app, a move that angered some people who felt the company was misleading them into handing over their data.

Tencent’s widely used WeChat also clarified earlier this week that the content of conversations on the social app are stored only on the user’s mobile phone, computer or other terminal devices, adding that it does not use any of the content for big data analysis, after Chinese automotive industry tycoon Li Shufu reportedly slammed the company for invading user privacy.