Online user privacy in the spotlight, but is this really anything new?

The issue of private online data protection came into the spotlight recently after two scandals involving some of China's most popular apps, WeChat and Alipay.
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The issue of private online data protection recently came into the spotlight after two scandals involving some of China’s most popular apps, WeChat and Alipay.

WeChat is part of our everyday life, and it’s probably the most important application for anyone living in China — unsurprisingly, they have nearly 1 billion users. Alipay, on the other hand, is a mobile payment app — WeChat serves the same function, too, but it pays to have both since some shops and restaurants only accept one or the other — which had 520 million users by the end of last year.

Those are huge numbers, and because these two apps play such a huge role in our daily lives, we often feed screeds of information into them without realizing it. Bank details, personal problems, hobbies, friends, spending habits, and even pics of the family dog, Doudou.

That’s a lot of information, floating around somewhere. Who can view it?

That’s the question that came bubbling to the surface recently after two scandals which engulfed the two giants and got China talking again about the protection of users’ data online.

First up was WeChat, who hit the headlines after a businessman mentioned that he thought Tencent — WeChat’s parent company — was monitoring private chats on the mammoth social media app. WeChat quickly came out swinging, denying all claims and aiming to comfort users by saying nothing was stored on their servers.

But as Liu Quan, a senior researcher in cyber security, told media recently that’s not entirely true, because when someone messages your WeChat account while your phone is turned off, you will still receive the message when you turn your phone on. That means in the interim it was stored somewhere.

The second privacy firestorm came when Alipay announced the yearly bill which allows users to view their spending on the online payment app over an entire year. Many were excited about it, until it was pointed out that in order to access such data, users were being signed up to Zhima Credit — a credit-scoring service operated by Ant Finance affiliated to Alibaba who runs Alipay — without an obvious way of signing out.

This instant sharing of private financial information to a third party was scary for many people for a number of reasons, one of the main ones being that users’ spending data would then automatically be used and assessed by a credit-scoring firm who could then make that data available to others. Not great if your credit history isn’t shining. Or if you care about privacy.

An apology was quickly issued, and Alipay changed their settings so that the default wasn’t to agree to being signed up for credit scoring: “… We apologize for creating upset and panic for users,” Zhima Credi’s statement said. Then why do it in the first place?

This led to quite wide discussion on the protection of users’ online data, with many calling for specific, new laws to stop unlawful access to, and unlawful use of, people’s private data.

Interestingly, this is the exact same debate that has been going on in the West for a very long time. Probably the main target of privacy issues online in the West is good ol’ Facebook, which has for years been embroiled in debates around privacy and what is done with users’ data.

We all know, for example, that Facebook mines our private chats to make advertisement suggestions. Recently I went to Bangkok for a short holiday, and right after telling a friend about it on Facebook Messenger, I began seeing advertisements in my Feed related to Bangkok and Thailand.

That’s scary.

Many Chinese also say that WeChat does a similar thing but, to be honest, I’ve never come across advertising on my WeChat, except from those pesky friends who sell things through their pengyou quan (WeChat Moments). And then I usually block their Feeds anyway.

The Facebook issue is still far from resolved, so I would hazard a guess that China is probably even further off from a consensus around the protection of users’ data.

App operators will argue that the use of such data expands the user experience, and I suppose that would be true for some people who don’t know how to use Baidu before they head off on holiday. But I think, at least for most people, the idea of private information being used and manipulated is a big turnoff.

But will that stop us from sharing our lives online? And is this the price we have to pay for living in such a connected world?


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