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China technology

Ant Financial denies use of Equifax IP to develop Sesame Credit rating system

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 September, 2018, 4:42pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2018, 10:50pm

Ant Financial Services, the Alibaba Group Holding affiliate that runs Alipay, has denied that it used intellectual property from US consumer credit rating agency Equifax to develop its Sesame Credit rating system, according to a statement released by the company on Thursday in response to a Wall Street Journal report.

Equifax suspected former employee Daniel Zou, who left the US firm to join Ant Financial in China, of taking proprietary data from Equifax to his new employer, according to The Wall Street Journal article published on Wednesday, which cited people familiar with the matter.

Zou had joined Ant Financial several months after the Hangzhou-based company launched its Sesame Credit third-party rating service, which assigns a score to users of online payments platform Alipay.

“We did not directly or indirectly encourage potential job applicants to obtain Equifax intellectual property or trade secrets,” said Chen Leiming, Ant Financial’s general counsel, in a statement. “This would be a violation of Ant Financial’s Code of Business Conduct and we would take immediate action against any employee found engaging in this behaviour.”

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Equifax had conducted an investigation into Zou’s computer activity, which fuelled the company’s suspicion that it was being spied on, according to The Wall Street Journal report. The US company found that Zou printed out thousands of pages of material related to how credit scores are obtained, the meaning of different pieces of data and how to use algorithms to access the required information.

The Equifax inquiry also found that certain recruiters provided job applicants with instructions on specific information they should bring along with them when meeting with Ant Financial.

The company “brought the investigation to the attention of US law enforcement authorities and cooperated with the federal agencies”, according to a statement from Equifax cited in the report. The firm said the information obtained “was general in nature and not material or harmful to Equifax, consumers or our business clients”.

Ant Financial described the published article as “a misleading story with false claims”, adding that it was “insulting” to the company’s integrity and corporate values.

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The company also denied that its Sesame Credit system was built under the direction of the Chinese government. It emphasised that Sesame Credit was “independently developed by Ant Financial purely as a commercial product”.

Sesame Credit assigns a number score to users based on the transactions they make and whether they pay their bills on time through the Alipay app. A favourable credit score means that one can rent items or even stay at certain hotels without putting down a deposit, and may find it easier to take out small consumer loans from Ant Financial.

The reported speculation of Chinese spying at Equifax has come at a time of heightened distrust between the US and China amid an ongoing trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturers Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corp, for example, have recently been accused of spying in the US. Both companies have denied those accusations.

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In July, Huawei refuted a claim made by a former employee who sued the company, alleging that he and two other employees were directed to infiltrate industry meetings and steal trade secrets from rival companies. In January this year, a smartphone distribution deal between Huawei and US carrier AT&T fell through after privacy concerns were raised over the Chinese company’s devices.

ZTE and Huawei have also been put on a list of companies banned from selling equipment or services to US carriers under a government-subsidised programme.

Before the US-China trade war erupted, Ant Financial’s bid to acquire MoneyGram International for US$1.2 billion was rejected by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States in January over national security concerns.

New York-listed Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.