Chat Program Sparks Privacy Fears

A popular Chinese online chat service is believed to have scanned users' personal information.
2010-10-05
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Chinese netizens surf the Web at an Internet cafe in Hefei, in central China's Anhui province, Jan. 25, 2007.
AFP

HONG KONG—A group of Chinese lawyers has said they will file a privacy lawsuit over one of China's most popular online chat programs, following complaints that the service had scanned confidential information on users' computers.

The allegations were reported in the official Chinese media after users ran a new version of the software Antivirus 360, which revealed that the QQ chat program scanned users' private files for information.

Wang Fengchang, founder of Fayi, a Beijing-based law-consulting website, said the group had received hundreds of complaints from users in recent days about QQ, a free instant-messaging computer program that is said to have more than 100 million users.

Wang said the lawsuit would aim to force the parent company of QQ, Tencent, to stop the alleged scanning from taking place, rather than seeking compensation.

Tencent responded with a statement on its website, saying that QQ is equipped with a common virus-detecting system and denying that QQ ever scanned users' private information.

"Protecting users' privacy is something we care greatly about, and a topic that we take very seriously," the company said.

Secret scans

Antivirus 360, which became available in China as a free download on Monday, claims to show users if programs in their computers are secretly scanning their private files.

In one scan carried out by the Shanghai Daily newspaper, 360 said QQ had scanned 1,203 files, including 151 listed in bold red ink—indicating files that "involve private information," including files of MSN, Windows Live Mail, Microsoft Office, and other software unconnected to QQ.

However, it was not clear from the newspaper report what the QQ software was doing with the information it scanned.

In its online statement, Tencent called recent news reports on the QQ privacy concerns "misleading," saying it had issued its Sept. 27 statement to "set the record straight."

It said QQ's anti-virus module had cleaned up 1.7 million trojan viruses on account holders' behalf.

Scans 'unnecessary'

Zhang Jinjun, publisher of a commercial website based in Guangzhou, said most people are aware of the need to protect their computers against viruses, and that it is unnecessary for QQ to include anti-virus scanning capacities.

"Of course we should be taking care and paying attention to viruses and trojan horses," Zhang said. "But QQ ... should not have this capability."

"It's not appropriate to the needs of the account users."

Beijing-based lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said he is a frequent QQ user, like many people in China.

"The problem with security on the Internet nowadays is that sometimes it's very hard to tell whether or not your privacy has been violated," Liu said.

"I have been using QQ ... Now the problem is that they may be able to read some information on users' computers," he said.

"If that gets leaked, especially if it's done on purpose, then it's definitely an infringement of our rights."

Security leaks

Zhang Tianliang, an electronic engineer and professor at George Mason University, said it wasn't the first time privacy concerns over QQ had surfaced.

"Foreign software companies discovered a while ago that ... QQ is able to grab all the keystrokes made by the user's keyboard, including all the password information and login details when they visit other websites," he said.

"Maybe people inside China didn't know about this, but people overseas have known about it for a long time."

Liu said potential security leaks could prove disastrous if people leave their QQ accounts running when they log on to their bank account online.

"Some of these companies, including QQ, need to get some kind of legal awareness," he said. "You should not be engaging in actions which violate people's privacy."

Software scrutiny

QQ is the latest in a slew of software and applications to come under critical scrutiny by China's technology-minded Internet users.

Following a public outcry among netizens in 2009, China announced an indefinite delay in enforcement of the requirement that computer makers pre-install controversial Internet filtering software on all new computers sold in the country.

The Green Dam Youth Escort program, which the government said would shield Chinese youth from online pornography, also sparked charges that the software’s true intent was blocking content Beijing deems subversive.

An investigation by RFA technicians into Green Dam revealed that the application saved a screenshot of a user’s browsing history every three minutes.

The images revealed each page viewed by the user and were stored as files within the application, which could then be accessed by an outside server.

Original reporting in Mandarin by An Pei. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.