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How WeChat came to rule China

Category: Smart Phone Apps
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The multipurpose messaging app is becoming the nation’s ID system

China’s most popular messaging app, WeChat, has always had a close relationship with the Chinese government. The app has been subsidized by the government since its creation in 2011, and it’s an accepted reality that officials censor and monitor users. Now, WeChat is poised to take on an even greater role: an initiative is underway to integrate WeChat with China’s electronic ID system.

It may be hard for people outside of China to grasp just how influential WeChat has become there. “For all intents and purposes WeChat is your phone, and to a far greater extent in China than anywhere else, your phone is everything,” wrote Ben Thompson, consultant and founder of the blog Stratechery. “There is nothing in any other country that is comparable: not LINE, not WhatsApp, not Facebook.”

Founded in 2011 and owned by Tencent, WeChat has 902 million daily users, and about 38 billion messages are sent on the platform every day. Last year, Tencent added mini-apps to WeChat, creating an app store of sorts: inside WeChat, you can play games, pay bills, find local hangouts, book doctor appointments, file police reports, hail taxis, hold video conferences, and access bank services. State-run media and government agencies also have official WeChat accounts, where they can directly communicate with users. WeChat’s dominance is aided by the government, which has censored Facebook Messenger since 2009, blocked the South Korean-owned Line app in 2015, and banned WhatsApp last year.

“WeChat becomes harder and harder for its users to opt out,” says Yuhua Wang, a former Shanghai resident who wrote a piece called “How WeChat grows into a huge part of our life,” for USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Overseas Chinese or anyone with family or relationships in China tend to download the messaging app in order to stay in contact since other American apps are banned.

Now WeChat is poised to become China’s electronic ID system, state-run Xinhua reported in December. WeChat will issue virtual ID cards, which individuals would use in lieu of physical state-issued ID cards. Since WeChat requires users to register with their real names per government policy, it’s not a stretch to imagine that one day, WeChat may fully replace state IDs. Harvard Business School professor of management Willy Shih, who co-authored a case study on WeChat, calls the transition to an electronic ID system a “predictable evolution.”

The pilot program began at the end of December, and it expanded across the country in January. The program was developed by the research institute of the Ministry of Public Security and Tencent’s WeChat team and is backed by banks and other government departments, including the China Construction Bank and the Guangzhou police station’s Nansha District branch.

To enroll in the program, users open the mini-app within WeChat to apply for a certificate. WeChat then gives you a digital black-and-white ID card that works for more informal uses like registering at internet cafes. (In China, you’re required to provide ID to log on.) Users can also apply to upgrade to a colored ID card. These can be used for more formal banking transactions and registering a business. Users can protect their IDs by setting an eight-digit password, and Xinhua says that facial recognition technology will be used to verify applicants in person before their ID cards are authorized in order to deter identity fraud. Additionally, the app will log a person’s fingerprint and the card chip from their corresponding physical ID.

Xinhua says that the digital IDs will be an “easy way to prove that ‘it’s really me’ anywhere, at any time, without worrying about identity theft.” WeChat users will, of course, still have to carry their phones, and they could still be vulnerable to identity theft if someone gains access to their phones. Tencent’s WeChat department declined to comment. The Ministry of Public Security did not immediately respond.

China has experimented with electronic ID cards on a mobile app before. In 2016, Wuhan’s Public Security Bureau in Hubei province partnered with Alibaba’s mobile payment platform Alipay to launch a similar electronic ID system. In its first year, it was used by about 400,000 people in Wuhan, and further updates eventually allowed the app to become a viable ID replacement for many of the city’s occupants. Alibaba declined to comment but said that the program is no longer running.

To some observers, WeChat’s new role raises privacy concerns. In addition to WeChat’s close ties with the Chinese government, WeChat also states in its privacy policy that it may retain user data for “as long as is necessary” to “comply with applicable laws and regulations.” In a since-deleted social media post in January, WeChat denied that the app was storing user chats in response to businessman Li Shufu’s comments that Tencent CEO Ma Huateng “must be watching all our WeChats every day.”

WeChat has a reputation for being heavily monitored, despite Tencent’s attempts to convince users to “rest assured, respecting user privacy has always been one of WeChat’s most important principles.” But even if the company says otherwise, on a technical level, it doesn’t offer users much protection against government surveillance. Tencent scored a zero out of 100 for WeChat’s lack of freedom of speech protection and lack of end-to-end encryption in a 2016 Amnesty International report on user privacy. Tencent doesn’t disclose when the government requests user data and gives no detail about the kind of encryption, if any, it employs.

Despite the privacy concerns, WeChat remains dominant. “In mainland China, it’s very culturally ingrained that the government has access to your life essentially,” says Matt Wright, director of emerging markets at AngelHack, a hackathon organization. “As long as you’re not doing anything weird and plotting against the government, they’re not going to dig through your data.” Shih says the relative privacy protections between apps aren’t important because the general expectation of privacy is so low: “It’s not an issue over there because you don’t have any privacy.”

There are signs that consumers in China may be growing more sensitive to the possible consequences of state-enforced data collection. Whether it’s enough to create an obstacle for WeChat’s considerable advantage is an open question. WeChat’s rise in China was aided by the censorship of foreign apps, government subsidies, and integration with government agencies. The app’s next step, to become an actual government ID system, will further solidify it as China’s official app.

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