News & Politics

UN Gives China's Biggest Surveillance Company a Global Audience to 'Listen to Their Thoughts'

(Ju Peng/Xinhua via AP)

On Wednesday, the United Nations announced it was partnering with China’s biggest tech surveillance company to facilitate global dialogue. The UN seems unphased by China’s efforts to silence its own doctors in the coronavirus crisis and to use a propaganda campaign to blame the U.S. for the virus. Instead, the international body will partner with a company that helps the Chinese Communist Party spy on its own citizens.

“In celebration of the UN’s 75th anniversary (#UN75 campaign), Tencent and the United Nations are partnering to reach out to millions of people across the globe, aiming to listen to their thoughts on what the world should look like in 25 years and what role international cooperation should play in solving global challenges like climate change and pandemics such as the coronavirus,” Tencent announced in a press release.

Tencent is partnering with the UN to “host thousands of online conversations through VooV Meeting (international version of Tencent Meeting), WeChat Work and Tencent Artificial Intelligence Simultaneous Interpretation (Tencent AI SI). This partnership means that amid the coronavirus pandemic, the largest global dialogue to date will be conducted with the technical support from one of the world’s largest Internet services and technology companies.”

Fabrizio Hochschild, a UN special advisor for the 75th-anniversary celebration, announced that Tencent’s “dialogue tools and videoconferencing services will greatly enhance our capacity to reach out to more people across the globe. Tencent’s technology and global outreach is particularly important to reach young people. As one of the world’s largest tech companies, Tencent’s support for the UN75 campaign sets an important example.”

WeChat, the all-encompassing chat app whose near-monopoly in the country has made it one of the most powerful tools for Chinese government surveillance, is Tencent’s flagship product. Tencent’s international meeting platform, VooV, raises serious internet security concerns. VooV, which launched in February, is the international version of Tencent Meeting, which launched in December.

China’s internet is often referred to as “The Great Firewall” because the Chinese government strictly regulates and monitors the content of its roughly 800 million online citizens, Quartz’s Echo Huang reported. “WeChat has further strengthened that closed system; WeChat’s privacy policy makes it clear that information will be shared with the government when requested.”

WeChat’s features “have made surveillance a near inevitability.” In 2017, the app introduced a search service and a series of mini-programs that allowed users to access third-party apps and services without leaving WeChat. This functionality gives the company — and the Chinese government — more data on user behavior.

“WeChat has access to a staggering amount of intimate and real-time information on its users, making it a perfect surveillance tool for the government,” Huang noted. “For instance, police have arrested people for writing comments that are critical of the Chinese government in private chats. It’s not unprecedented that governments should crack down on dissidents based on what they say on social media, but the Chinese government has far more information than most because of the sheer amount of time people spend on WeChat.”

Quartz’s Mary Hui raised serious information security concerns with VooV, noting the recent privacy and security concerns about the video-conferencing software Zoom.

As the coronavirus pandemic forces people to stay indoors, millions are turning to Zoom to connect them with one another, virtually. Zoom markets its service as secured by end-to-end encryption, but the Intercept found that Zoom has access to unencrypted video and audio from meetings, an important security flaw, especially considering that major companies and governments have recently used the service. SpaceX recently banned employees from using Zoom, and users sued the platform in California this week, accusing the company of sharing users’ personal data with Facebook.

In light of this, it is astonishing that the UN agreed to work with VooV Meeting. The platform’s service agreement does not even mention end-to-end encryption. In fact, it notes that “any message or information you send… may be read or intercepted by others, even if there is a special notice that a particular transmission is encrypted.” Wow!

VooV’s privacy policy warns that user information will be transferred “to any country where we have databases or affiliates and, in particular, the People’s Republic of China.” Although the exact details of the privacy policy may differ between countries, the information transferred to China can include user information, IP address and device information, software information, and service log information.

It remains unclear just how closely Tencent works with the Chinese government, but it is clear that the Communist Party carries out some form of surveillance on its citizens through Tencent’s platforms.

Even if it makes sense for the UN to overlook this abuse and partner with Tencent, the international body certainly should not be making such an announcement in the middle of a crisis exacerbated by the Chinese government. As health officials in China first learned of the novel coronavirus, Chinese Communist Party officials rushed to silence doctors, ordered them to destroy samples, and delayed any form of shutdown, refusing to even put out a Wuhan travel advisory. As the coronavirus pandemic now ravages the rest of the world, China is blaming the U.S. for the virus and championing Trump’s liberal critics as they cry “racism.”

Meanwhile, the UN links arms with Tencent, skipping along to its 75th-anniversary celebration, encouraging millions across the globe to upload videos to VooV, which will transfer user information to China. Wonderful.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.