Familiar Strangers: WeChat & WhatsApp
Published on January 4, 2018
What’s the must have app in China? More specifically, what’s the first app you should get in China? Many would say Google Maps, Google Translation or even weather apps, but ask anyone that lived in China for more than one week, you are most likely to get the answer “WeChat”.
WeChat is one instant messaging (“IM”) service developed and operated by Tencent; by the year of 2017, it recorded around 900 milion active users. WeChat has so profoundly impacted our lives that we can barely notice its existence, it has become the natural “go-to app” for communications for any kind of purpose: your family, your friends and colleagues are all on WeChat.
Therefore, it’s interesting how little we are aware of something that’s so familiar with us; for example, do you really own your WeChat account? Who else can access your private chat record?
Hereby, in order to get a better look at WeChat’s true colors, we will make some comparisons between WeChat and its counterpart, WhatsApp, one major IM service by Facebook, recorded 1.3 billion active users by the year of 2017.
People nowadays conduct numerous activities via IMs, such as WeChat and WhatsApp among which many are quite private; one main reason is that users tend to believe that the account is their own electronic property and their activities are secured on it. But truths do surprise.
WeChat stated in its user terms that all users are granted non-transferable, non-exclusive and personal license for its service, which must be used in strict compliance with relevant user terms. WhatsApp has the very similar description in its user terms. However, WeChat takes one step further, it clearly declared that Tencent has the ownership of all WeChat accounts and users can have only the right of use after registration.
As the company owns the accounts, naturally they can manage the accounts within their own discretion. For example, WeChat and WhatsApp both reserve the rights to suspend and terminate the accounts for almost any reason. So, what users can at least do is to back up their data regularly considering the possible “foreclosure” of their accounts.
In 2016, Apple declined FBI’s several requests to unlock one iPhone and disclose the private information of the owner of the iPhone, which belongs to one potential gunner that FBI claims to have strong connections with ISIS, a booming terrorism organization. Apple’s firm stand was heavily criticized by US governments but universally acclaimed by its customers. What would WeChat and WhatsApp respond in above scenarios?
Regarding the terms, WeChat and WhatsApp both have relevant policies that entitle them to disclose user information, for example they both have rights to collect and share user information as respond to applicable laws, Government requests, etc. and for other purposes such as improving their services and provide above information to its affiliated companies for business considerations. What WeChat and WhatsApp difference is that WeChat has the right to use user information to better third-party advertisers’ advertisement delivery, which means its business partners also have the access, whereas WhatsApp straightforward declared that it has not and has no plan to introduce third-party ads into its service, hence its user information won’t be available to others but itself.
From previous discussion it’s clear that WeChat and WhatsApp will “give you away” when they have to, the question is to what extent can they do that? This depends on the accessibility service providers are entitled to.
WeChat has its own standard for the classification of private information, which includes only identification, real name, IP address and phone number as private information, whereas others are all general information, presumably including all chat records, uploaded pictures, etc., and WeChat can decide how to deal with the latter. As for WhatsApp, it just introduces end-to-end encryption to all its users, specifically for the purpose of preventing the service provider and other third parties from reading any messages between users. It’s reasonable to say that WhatsApp is better at keeping secrets.
Will you stop using your WeChat or WhatsApp after reading this article? Probably not, but it’s your rights to know your rights, we are happy to be of help on that part.