Privacy is still a very important topic in the online space and while there has been a lot of crackdown over privacy and data security especially in regards to how big tech companies deal with their users’ data and information, there are still some issues that happen behind the scenes with little to nobody’s knowledge.
That is where China’s largest mobile social media platform WeChat comes in. The service which has over 1.25 billion monthly active users (MAUs) was found to be frequently accessing photo galleries of users’ devices even when the app is not in use.
The issue was publicized by a tech influencer on Weibo who goes by the name Hackl0us.
According to him, WeChat periodically accesses user photos for a duration of about 1 minute each while running in the background.
Hackl0us also included screenshots to prove his point.
The app, operated by Tencent Holdings, periodically accesses user photos for durations of up to 1 minute each while running in the background, according to Hackl0us, citing conversations from a Telegram chat group. Accompanying screenshots suggested WeChat accesses photo galleries every few hours.
The activity was said to be discovered using Apple’s new “Record App Activity” feature on iOS 15, released last month.
A WeChat representative has however stated that the app looks for new images to make it “faster and smoother for users to send photos.”
While that claim might sound like WeChat really care about its users, not so many bought that idea which has raised concerns over people’s privacy on their phone.
“Weixin takes user privacy seriously,” the company said in a statement, using the Chinese name for WeChat. “Weixin does not collect, save, or upload any images from a user’s album without the user’s authorisation.”
Background scanning for new photos “will be canceled in the new version”, a company representative said.
Hackl0us also added that other big brands such as Tencent’s QQ messaging app and Taobao, Alibaba Group Holding’s top online shopping marketplace with over 900 million MAUs also do this routine access to users’ photos while running in the background.
Taobao and QQ did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
This is an “extremely disgusting” act according to the influencer who cited the fact that photos are private to users and the fact that these companies are scanning them while the user is totally unaware is a next-level privacy invasion.
His proposed solution was for users to turn off these permissions in system settings.
iOS 15 has improved security and privacy features and the same with Android 12 which will let you know whether your device’s camera or mic is being used by an app in the background however, apps scanning your photos in the background is a big issue.
“Now that they can scan photos, it’s quite easy to read other stuff on the phone,” one Weibo user posted. Another said, “In this era, I’m running naked on the internet every second.”
Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology started to routinely monitor apps for privacy issues back in 2019 as big tech companies in the countries continue to cross their boundaries as far as user’s privacy is concerned.
The Ministry in its crackdown has singled out more than 1,300 apps to date for excessive permissions, illegally collecting user information and misleading customers.
New data related laws and regulations this year have also required companies to make changes to how they operate.
The Personal Information Protection Law will be one of the world’s strictest data protection laws when it goes into effect next month. The Data Security Law, which took effect last month, introduced stricter legal requirements for data handling practices.