WeChat – the gateway to online security fraud in Asia?

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While Facebook’s data collection issues have traditionally dominated the attention of the media there is another social media giant that has crept into the picture of late. Its name is WeChat. A Chinese multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app that first launched nationally in 2011, WeChat became one of the world’s most popular apps within just 7 years – and simultaneously became China’s most valuable company. With one billion monthly users, each one celebrating the ease of a platform that combines the very best of Facebook and WhatsApp, WeChat has recently become synonymous with not only setting up real estate appointments, sending job applications and receiving animated GIFs but also with the digital payment ecosystem. Added to the app’s offerings in 2013, WeChat Wallet allows users to buy movie tickets, pay utility bills, book train and plane travel, order a rideshare and more. Today, almost 300 million users have their banking information saved to their e-wallet and – according to iResearch, China’s mobile payment market is as a result estimated to be worth over 30 trillion Yuan – more than four billion US dollars.

The worrying thing about all this e-growth is that traditionally, the Chinese government has always maintained a very close relationship with the app’s Shenzhen-based parent company, Tencent. Not only does the government partly subsidize the platform, but it also monitors and censors its users’ activities. And word on the street is the two are preparing to become even closer, with an initiative that will see the merging of WeChat with the country’s electronic identification system. Yup, you heard right. WeChat is preparing to issue users with virtual ID cards that will be considered the equivalent of those issued by the government. With each day, it becomes more and more difficult for consumers to ‘opt out’ of WeChat given that so many basic services and functions now take place via the app. The fact that the government have banned so many foreign-owned and operated apps only makes refusing WeChat more difficult, and there is a real fear that there may soon come a time where it is imperative for all Chinese citizens to have a mobile device and to use WeChat for basic transactions.

WeChat isn’t the only platform offering previously untapped digital possibilities to Chinese consumers. In fact in the rankings of the Asia Pacific region’s fastest growing tech companies in 2018, China dominated, with Chinese companies stealing seven of the top 10 spots. China is today at the forefront of growth in online B2B ecosystems and is seeing the rapid takeover of such platforms from traditional business models. What this also means is the sudden transition to an online economy and billions of new users now vulnerable to data hacking and other cybersecurity risks. WeChat’s growing popularity raises serious privacy concerns for users, with many aware their activities may now be regularly monitored by government and their personal information rife for hacking. As an example, the app recently released a feature allowing users to identify the full names and locations of blacklisted debtors within a 500-meter radius of their device. To exacerbate matters, not only are we seeing rapid development in the growth of mobile banking platforms and social media apps that harness private information but in China even the medical industry is working with AI and the technology industry to gather personal data. Today, it is more important than ever to learn how to protect your digital privacy and stay safe online.

It is still not clear whether new tech companies in China are following the same high standards regarding data protection that we see in other regions, for example Europe where the GDPR has entirely changed the landscape of data collection. And, while data standards and privacy laws do exist in Asia at some level there remain big questions over how they are being enforced – especially in China. While China has long been synonymous with government surveillance the rise of new technologies such as facial recognition and AI has citizens particularly worried about the growing risk of personal information theft and fraud. But it is possible to protect oneself from those vigilantly watching and looking to pounce, and here is how.

Firstly, always ensure you use complex passwords. This goes without saying. It is always not advised to use the same password for every single account under your name – though this may seem tempting in the age of multiple accounts. Try using a secure online encrypted password platform such as Clipperz.com to store all your various passwords. That way you will only need to remember one password and you can be certain no hacker-wannabe will be able to break through those heavily encrypted barriers and access your precious passwords.

Never click on suspicious or unknown links or attachments that you do not recognise. It’s absurd how many people get this one wrong. Hackers are able to instantaneously access the accounts connected to your computer if you do this or guide you to “phishing” sites that harvest usernames and passwords so just remember, if it’s suspicious, hit delete. Also avoid clicking pop-up windows, as they can lead you to similar sites the minute you do.

Last but certainly not least, invest in an anti-virus software or web application firewall, which will automatically download updates when new viruses crop up and will identify new threats on your behalf.

Growth is a good thing, indeed, but will the cost of personal privacy be exchanged for development and progression as a society? Time will only tell..

 

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