China surveillance: WeChat users’ messages on Dalai Lama, Tibet disappear

Ramarko Sengupta January 18, 2017 4 min

Free messaging app WeChat has been filtering and censoring content related to a Buddhist event in India, according to the Tibet Action Institute, an NGO that focuses on digital security for the Tibetan community.

The event in question is the 34th Kalachakra Initiation, a series of Buddhist teachings conferred by the Dalai Lama. The event was held this year between January 3 and 14 in Bodh Gaya, believed to be the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

A member of the Tibetan Government in Exile, who wished not to be named (as he’s not the spokesperson) also confirmed this incident of censorship. “Yes it’s true, and we are asking people not to use the chat app because it’s under Chinese surveillance. Some people have even been imprisoned for sharing images and content related to the Dalai Lama or the Tibet movement,” he told FactorDaily.

There are around 1,50,000 Tibetans living in exile in India, with the Tibetan Government in Exile headquartered at Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.

Citizen Lab, Canada, which focuses on advanced research and development at the intersection of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), human rights, and global security was the first to point out Chinese surveillance of the event.

kalachakra
Image courtesy: Citizen Lab

According to an industry estimate, WeChat, owned by Chinese investment company Tencent Holdings Ltd., has over 30 million downloads on Google Play, making it a significant player in India where WhatsApp is the leader with over 160 million active users.

WeChat has been the primary mode of communication for the Tibetan diaspora in India to communicate with friends and family back in Tibet, said Lobsang Gyatso Sither, who is the digital securities program manager at Tibet Action Institute. Nearly 90% of the community uses the platform, he said.

In China, the app is beyond just a chat platform and is hugely popular, supporting cross-platform active services like banking, cab booking, food delivery etc.

The Tibet Action Institute found that the keyword combination “Kalachakra + Dalai Lama + Tibetan” was blocked in group chats between users in India and China. So, every time a user sitting in either India or China tried to send a message that contained these keywords, the message was reportedly not getting delivered. The server would simply censor the message, with neither the sender nor the recipient getting any sort of notification that a message was blocked. It was seen that similar keyword combinations related to the event were also being censored across languages such as English, Hindi and Chinese.

The Tibet Action Institute found that the keyword combination “Kalachakra + Dalai Lama + Tibetan” was blocked in group chats between users in India and China.

We reached out to WeChat India to get their perspective on this but have not received a response.

Ethical hacker and cyber security expert Saket Modi was of the opinion that at a time when messengers are promising end-to-end privacy, being able to block the content automatically means being able to read the content. “Either they are decrypting and reading all the text messages, or the second way is you have something called elliptical encryption where you don’t need to decrypt the encrypted data,” Modi said. Elliptical curve cryptography (ECC) is a public key encryption technique based on elliptic curve theory that can be used to create faster, smaller, and efficient cryptographic keys.

“Either they are decrypting and reading all the text messages, or the second way is you have something called elliptical encryption where you don’t need to decrypt the encrypted data” — Saket Modi

The Chinese state has long been known to practise mass cyber surveillance on its citizens. An Indian tech entrepreneur, who has a client base in China, said under condition of anonymity: “Although China is a big economy, it’s not a replicable economy. It’s a nightmare there… the way things are. There is no freedom of speech. Everything is controlled by the government there in some way or the other. Everything you’re doing, you’re saying is being watched.”

Another ethical hacker and cyber security expert Trishneet Arora went on to suggest the possibility of China snooping on Indian WeChat users also. China and India share a long history of conflict primarily over disputed borders, which also saw the two countries going to war in 1962.


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