Chinese authorities admit they’re able to retrieve deleted WeChat messages

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Chinese authorities are able to retrieve deleted WeChat messages from a suspect’s phone to catch criminals, a government watchdog admitted on Monday in social media posts spotted by South China Morning Post. The stunning admission confirms what many have believed for years: WeChat can be used as a government surveillance tool, and even once-deleted messages can be retrieved by authorities.

WeChat’s parent company Tencent denied any wrongdoing, saying in a social media post, “WeChat does not store any chat histories — they are only stored on users’ phones and computers.” That stance is similar to one Tencent has taken in the past, when Chinese auto industry executive Li Shufu stated that the company’s CEO “must be watching all our WeChats every day,” at a business forum back in January. Tencent denied that claim as well, saying, “WeChat will not use any content from user chats for big data analysis” and “WeChat’s technical model does not store or analyze user chats.”

The anti-corruption watchdog, the Chaohu Municipal Discipline Inspection and Supervision Commission in eastern China, admitted in a social media post that it used deleted WeChat conversations from a suspect to figure out who else to question in a case. The watchdog said the suspects it questioned (who were all party officials) broke down and confessed to violating the rules. As a result, the commission was able to punish 63 party officials in total.

The commission’s post went viral over the weekend, but by Sunday, it had been taken down. The controversy caused a stir among Chinese web users for being a rare admission of user privacy violations on behalf of a Chinese-owned corporation. Many took other forums to question how they should protect themselves from having their private conversations read. Some wondered if physically destroying their smartphones might protect them from government eavesdropping. The discussions come at a time when most of the world is reconsidering tech companies’ user data retention policies and as Europe’s new data policies go into effect on May 25th.

Back in March, the Australian defense department banned WeChat from military grounds, saying the app did not meet defense standards, although it did not explicitly cite security concerns. We’ve reached out to Tencent for comment.

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The watchdog said the suspects it questioned (who were all party officials) broke down and confessed to violating the rules. As a result, the commission was able to punish 63 party officials in total.

This is how a senate hearing or DOJ investigation is supposed to end.

Only in authoritarian societies

I appreciate The Verge’s reports on such tech/social issues by the Chinese govt.

I have family members of that ethnicity, who may want to be kept aprised even if they don’t live there.

China is known for its censorship on social media and internet content. With WeChat being the biggest social media platform in China, bigger than Facebook, it is pretty obvious that WeChat has some kind of business relationship with the Chinese government.This little confession evidence is really just regurgitating what many Chinese citizens already know. For those naive individual who lives in china and think social media platform in China are safe and private, they simply have not seen China from the outside world, blinded by the information the Chinese government wants to see.

Odds are that every single social media app that has been allowed to "freely" flourish in the Chinese market gives their police state full access to user data.

A reminder that freedoms and human rights are not an inevitable result of human history. Backsliding is happening all around the world, including in the US. People often seem ready to trade their rights for an imagined security, confident that they won’t be affected.

Huh, I actually always assumed their servers had a copy of everything as well since I’m sure that’s how the Chinese government would prefer it. But it makes sense that it’s all local because if you log in on a new phone you can’t see your old chats.

So oddly the privacy is better than I had assumed.

Hmm, it’s not clear, but the way it’s worded, the data could have been retrieved from the phone itself. This means there could still be a backdoor, but it’ll be locally on the phone, so technically Tencent weren’t lying with their original statement.

Ah, politics; always watch how the statements are worded!

To be honest I can’t be surprised.

The Communist Party has full access to WeChat, we all know this. Must be nice that WeChat is rolled out to worldwide users but US entities such as Google, WhatsApp, other messaging platforms such as Signal and Telegram are banned in China.

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