Saturday, 2024 April 13

Major mobile apps in China extensively mine personal data, sparking social media outrage

Some of China’s most widely used apps, including WeChat, Taobao, and Meituan, are being accused of tracking users’ information in exploitative ways. Users took to social media over the weekend to indicate their displeasure with tech companies’ breach of their personal privacy.

On Friday, a Weibo user who goes by the screen name Hackl0us posted information from the Record App Activity feature in iOS 15 and said apps like WeChat and Taobao have been scanning photos saved on his phone even when the apps were closed. Two days later, a separate user posted a similar report from his iPhone that indicated Meituan’s app was tracking his location every five minutes throughout the day.

Hashtags generated from the two posts generated more than 300 million views and have provoked widespread outcry over the lack of data privacy. Under related hashtags, many people shared similar experiences and questioned whether the data harvesting practices of major tech platforms violate their privacy.

Some of the apps in question are ubiquitous in China. In particular, WeChat is an essential tool for communications in private and professional settings. It also has social media functionality, and WeChat Pay is a widely used wallet for daily transactions.

WeChat replied that iOS informs the apps when there are updates in a user’s photo album. The reason behind this, the platform’s representatives said, was that WeChat pre-processes images so they can be shared or sent out more quickly, assuming a user gave the app access to a phone’s media library.

This isn’t the first time for WeChat to come under fire for the way its user data is handled. In April, Tencent said it would release a proprietary WeChat keyboard to prevent data harvesting by external parties, after users said phrases that they typed in messages were being read to generate targeted ads.

Hackl0us was unable to verify WeChat’s claims, as the platform is not open-source. He created a timeline of the events related to his post on Zhihu and argued that the practice amounted to unnecessary access of user data.

Meituan hasn’t issued a public statement about its app’s data harvesting actions. Last year, the company was accused of tracking users’ locations to increase prices if the same account repeatedly placed orders with the same restaurant.

Sina Tech conducted a survey on Weibo to find out if people were willing to allow apps to access their data for faster delivery times. More than 94% of the 31,800 users who took part voted no. Many called on regulators to issue probes into the matter.

So far, no regulators have stepped in. It remains unclear whether tech giants’ data harvests violate current privacy laws in China. The country’s first national data privacy statute, the Personal Information Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China (PIPL), will come into effect on November 1. It states that companies must adopt methods that have the least impact on personal rights, and that they cannot collect excessive amounts of personal information.

Jiaxing Li
Jiaxing Li
Report on China’s turbulent tech scene with deep context and analysis: cover tech policies and regulations; write about major internet firms like Alibaba and Tencent, and a range of tech-driven sectors from the chip, edtech, EV, to metaverse and gaming industry.

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