Analyzing WeChat

Citizen Lab has analyzed how censorship works in the Chinese chat app WeChat:

Key Findings:

  • Keyword filtering on WeChat is only enabled for users with accounts registered to mainland China phone numbers, and persists even if these users later link the account to an International number.

  • Keyword censorship is no longer transparent. In the past, users received notification when their message was blocked; now censorship of chat messages happens without any user notice.

  • More keywords are blocked on group chat, where messages can reach a larger audience, than one-to-one chat.

  • Keyword censorship is dynamic. Some keywords that triggered censorship in our original tests were later found to be permissible in later tests. Some newfound censored keywords appear to have been added in response to current news events.

  • WeChat's internal browser blocks China-based accounts from accessing a range of websites including gambling, Falun Gong, and media that report critically on China. Websites that are blocked for China accounts were fully accessible for International accounts, but there is intermittent blocking of gambling and pornography websites on International accounts.

Lots more details in the paper.

Posted on December 1, 2016 at 9:29 AM • 19 Comments

Comments

keinerDecember 1, 2016 9:51 AM

Make america great again, win leadership back in backdoors/censorship within the next 4 years, prolongation guaranteed!

ab praeceptisDecember 1, 2016 10:09 AM

keiner

"Make america great again, win leadership back in backdoors/censorship within the next 4 years, prolongation guaranteed!"

Kindly help me out. What do you mean with "backdoors"? Do you mean what "the good democrats" in bothe parties have installed all over the internet, in major IXs, etc?

And with cencorship: Will that be needed at all? Just look at how the us-american (and their vassals) media acted extremely biased and "firing" against everyone who dared to consider anyone but clinton.
Or do you mean things like what the dnc did against one of their own candidates (sanders)?
Or do you mean what has been done to Snowden and Assange and others?

Btw: Based on what is prolongation "guaranteed"? Can you elaborate or did you just want your farting to sound more impressive?

WilliamDecember 1, 2016 10:11 AM

Not surprising to anyone who's been following China's online censorship. Unfortunately, the study doesn't seem to cover whether messages sent from outside China to a person in China are censored. For further study: do messages sent between non-Chinese users go through servers in China, where they are presumably subject to real-time surveillance by Chinese authorities?

Fake NewsDecember 1, 2016 10:33 AM


This sounds an awful lot like what's happening in America with so-called 'fake news' filtering. I'm sure companies like Facebook will be looking to WeChat for ideas in this area.

ArtDecember 1, 2016 10:56 AM

At least now the United States/NSA has a great Social Media security model template that they adopt and use here in the United States....oh wait maybe it was the other away around?........either way collaboration improves overall security.

Art

Werrd ByrdDecember 1, 2016 10:59 AM

Facebook, Google, Twitter et al with the blessing of governments everywhere are initiating there own versions of keyword censorship.

It's odd how the liberating force of the internet has created an equal and opposing force of censorship, domination and control by our corporate-military masters.

keinerDecember 1, 2016 11:26 AM

@ab

Encrypted messengers/Apple etc. with backdoors? Stuff like that...

Censorship? Wait 'n see, it's the way things go in all totalitarian systems to hunt opposition and minorities.

albertDecember 1, 2016 2:51 PM

Blocking "...gambling and pornography..." and criticism of the State*. I can see that. This is business-as-usual for totalitarian regimes. But Falun Gong? This appears to be paranoia by certain Chinese leaders; nothing else makes sense**.

Despite being crushed like a bug by the State, people still practice it. -That- should be the lesson that the State takes away from this. To make matters worse, Li Hongzhi, the spiritual leader of the movement, is now a US citizen! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falun_Gong)

The proper reaction for China would have been to back off, -not- double down. All governments need to learn this lesson. Machismo always leads to trouble

@keiner,
As long as the MSM does its job, we're OK for now. The problem is now, after the abject failure of the US MSM in the latest election fiasco, that citizens confidence levels may become dangerously low. The footnote cited* may be a reaction to that.

@Art,
You don't have to sign your posts.... unless you use a Reel E Kewl handle, like 'Colonel Hacker', or 'Chick N Catch A Tory'.

---------
*lest we forget, I must point out our very own "Russian propaganda media outlets" blacklist, courtesy of the CIAs favorite Public Relations Dept., the Washington Post.

** Organ harvesting?

P.S. (If John Phillip Sousa were alive today, he'd probably want to rename his famous march.)
. .. . .. --- ....

TedDecember 1, 2016 5:17 PM

The research group Ranking Digital Rights has developed a Corporate Accountability Index to evaluate the world’s major internet and telecommunications companies (ICTs) based on their policies and commitments towards freedom of expression and privacy.

Their 2015 report ranked 16 internet and telecommunications companies. Google, the highest ranked internet company on the 2015 report, received a total corporate accountability score of 65%, while Tencent, the Chinese internet company who owns WeChat, received a score of 16%. [1]

Scores were determined based on around 20 indicator results grouped under three categories -- commitment, freedom of expression, and privacy. The freedom of expression component, for example, is comprised of 11 indicators including “Availability of Terms of Service,” “Terms of Service, notice and record of changes,” “Reasons for content restriction,” “Reasons for account or service restriction,” and so forth.

For the “Availability of Terms of Service” component, Tencent received a score of 72%. The total score was based the evaluation of three of its services – social network Qzone, IM chat and calls service QQ, and IM chat and calls service WeChat. The Terms of Service were evaluated based on whether they were free, available in the most common user language(s), and were easy to understand. [1]

RDR has launched a new research cycle for their 2017 Corporate Accountability Index. This cycle they will research 22 companies, adding six new companies to those they previously evaluated in the 2015 report. [2]

[1] https://rankingdigitalrights.org/index2015/

[2] https://rankingdigitalrights.org/2016/09/15/rdr-launches-2017-research/

Godfree RobertsDecember 1, 2016 5:29 PM

Our own media is heavily censored (see Ron Unz's 'American Pravda': http://www.unz.com/runz/american-pravda-how-the-cia-invented-conspiracy-theories/) and, though our media touts itself as free, fewer than 20% of us trust it, according to Gallup's June survey this year. Post-election, trust has taken another dip.

Chinese media is censored, presents itself as censored, publishes its censorship rules and more than 80% of Chinese people trust Chinese media above all other sources, and 500 million of them have traveled abroad in the past 6 years, most of whom read and understand English well. James Fallowes' wife, Deborah, got a Pew grant to study Chinese censorship and found that 90% of Chinese approve of their government's censorship policies.

All media are censored to some degree. What matters is how well their narrative corresponds to people's experience over time. Across the world, State-owned and State-regulated media are trusted 4:1 over privately owned, unregulated media.

Watch Lee Kwan Yew explaining Singapore's censorship to the American Society of Newspaper Editors: www.c-span.org/video/?2217-1/third-world-perspective-press. You'll understand why.

fbi[dot]Playpen[dot]gov[slash]comeypoundingaltarboysDecember 1, 2016 6:21 PM

Compared with China, the US police state also represses freedom of expression with technical means (such as holding back twitter messages to keep them off accessible pages) but increasingly with CIA threatening vindictive state investigation of unauthorized speech:

http://www.propornot.com/p/the-list.html

For the FBI, freedom of association is a greater threat than freedom of expression. Having administratively set aside the Fourth Amendment with a new and more repressive Rule 41, FBI is at work now arbitrarily sabotaging privacy infrastructure built by human rights defenders.

https://lists.torproject.org/pipermail/tor-talk/2016-November/042639.html

SIGAINT has long been subject to illegal FBI sabotage but they are more technically competent than the FBI, so FBI privacy interference has simply stimulated countermeasures. Expect the FBI's destructive efforts to escalate because FBI urgently needs to suppress evidence of the Bureau's complicity in US government attacks on the domestic civilian population including OKC, Amerithrax, WTC 93, 9/11, and the Boston Marathon Bombing.

albertDecember 1, 2016 6:45 PM

@Godfree Roberts, et al,

Would censorship by any other name still stink?

Wikipedia offers a rather broad definition of the term, and includes actions that probably should have separate definitions.

Let's assume 'censorship' means 'government censorship'. Countries like China practice 'editorial' censorship, that is, they edit the input directly; it's not allowed to escape into the wild. Serious rule violations however, can be punished, often severely. Here in the US, we have astonishingly liberal 'protected speech*' laws, even compared to Europe. Again, certain speech will definitely result in uninvited guests, with badges. (In most cases, they won't drag you away in chains to a gulag).

How, then, do citizens determine the trustworthiness of their media? That's important, because it is a measure of the amount and quality of the censorship imposed upon it.

In China, one would have to look at what the MSM is saying, and comparing it to what is being observed. When the Government provides the metrics, it's difficult to make an informed decision**. It may be that the State does what it says it will do, and who can argue with success?

We have alternative media, and access to other countries as well, not to mention a 'free' flow of ideas. It's easier to see when observable realities don't align with MSM lies, hence the low approval ratings.

The measure of approval ratings may then be a measure of the efficiency of a States propaganda, nothing more, nothing less.

Maybe a measure of the 'information vacuum' may be more appropriate. I propose the unit: Jong-un, where 1000 Jong-uns is maximum possible information vacuum. The Jong-un scale can never be zero. Maybe it's a power function.

The floor is open...

----------
*'Speech' here refers to any kind of public or private expression.

** Take North Korea as an extreme example. "It's all good", and "Don't worry, be happy!" kinda ring hollow.

. .. . .. --- ....

Don't KnowDecember 1, 2016 9:09 PM

DHS including over a dozen agencies keyword filter all social media and have been doing it for years:

https://gist.github.com/jm3/2815378

Indeed, the words "social media" are flagged when used in social media and since this post mentions the words "social media" I guess it's being flagged, collected, analyzed and referred for some kind of status code.

None of can prove yet certain social media posts are vaporized in real time when very touch subjects are discussed, but I am absolutely sure it happens.

In short, China is behind the times.

TSA FBI CIA ACLU thunder lightning ASPCA Bozo the Clown fire water wind vortex


George December 2, 2016 6:31 AM

@Bruce you wrote once about the greek wiretap scandal. We might have a new one
The communist party of greece claimed that there is crosstalistening at their calls with other parties (new democracy potami and syriza ).
That happened yesterday and there is a current investigation by the authorities.
If im right you know greek?
Take a look
http://www.kathimerini.gr/886082/article/epikairothta/politikh/katepeigoysa-ereyna-toy-areioy-pagoy-gia-tis-kataggelies-toy-kke-peri-synakroasewn-sta-thlefwna-toy

LeilaDecember 2, 2016 8:37 AM

I am pretty sure it works the same in Facebook and all over the world. I do expect some analysis for the rest.

CqretDecember 4, 2016 11:11 AM

@Godfree Roberts
John says he will kill anyone who looks over his fence. And he does so, everytime.
Waybe says he will kill anyone who looks over his fence. And he does so, sometimes.
Which one will you trust more?

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