The owners of Chinese social media app WeChat have denied they are monitoring the service or keeping chat logs for government surveillance – despite evidence to the contrary.
WeChat was accused of the obvious thing by prominent Chinese businessman Li Shufu, owner of car manufacturing multinational Geely Holdings. Geely owns Volvo and LTI, the firm which makes London's black taxis, among many other companies.
The South China Morning Post quoted Shufu as saying that the chief exec of Tencent Corporation, the holding company that owns WeChat, "is watching us through WeChat every day because he can see whatever he wants".
Unusually, the Chinese newspaper also quoted one Li Yi, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, who pointed out that Tencent has been "boosting its cloud capacity" despite insisting it doesn't store user data or conversations.
"How could WeChat fulfil the government's task if it does not store or analyse conversations from its users?" Yi asked, rhetorically. Chinese social media platforms are under a legal duty to give the country's communist government full access to the content of private messages.
"WeChat does not keep any user's chat history, chat content is only stored in the user's mobile phone, computer and other terminal equipment," said the firm in a Chinese-language post on its service*, adding: "Because WeChat does not store, do not analyze the technical content of the user chat mode, rumors that 'we look at your WeChat every day' is purely a misunderstanding."
The BBC reported that Tencent was fined in September for not censoring users' posts robustly enough.
The Wall Street Journal reported late last year that a construction supervisor in Puyang, China, was jailed after telling an "off-colour joke" on WeChat about politically powerful people, as part of a private group conversation. The article goes into some detail about evident surveillance on WeChat through interviews with people arrested and convicted of criminal offences for making jokes targeting the political class, talking about government corruption and "spreading false rumours".
In the West, moves are being made to force Facebook and Twitter to open themselves up for similar levels of government surveillance, driven by the ever-present fear of terrorist plotters and, increasingly, of people who make indecent jokes with their friends. Though the two social media sites have largely ignored the increasingly shrill demands of Home Secretary Amber Rudd to do as she demands, MPs appear more and more willing to legislate against them as time goes on. ®
*Dodgy machine translation via Google.