The WeChat App
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Jonas Braun | Cyber Security Writer
Friday, March 29, 2019

WeChat App – The Chinese Wunder-App With a Catch

Facebook, Netflix, Instagram, WhatsApp, Spotify, YouTube, Pinterest, Xing, Twitter - this is just a small list of social networks that each one of us knows and uses almost every day.

Around 3.58 billion people around the world use social media to communicate, catch up or just chat with one another. Facebook and its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp cover most of it. As of the third quarter of 2018, the company, founded by Mark Zuckerberg, has approximately 2.3 billion active users worldwide, and tops the most actively used social networks.

In comparison: YouTube has 1.6 billion and WhatsApp 1.5 billion worldwide active users. This trend can be seen around the world – with the exception of China. In China, one single social service is used: WeChat.

WeChat has a comparable, if not more powerful, position in Asia than Facebook in the rest of the world. This is partly due to the fact that Facebook, Twitter and all are under censorship in China. WeChat is the only alternative. As of Q3 2018, the Social Network has nearly 1.1 billion monthly active users.

The Success Story of WeChat

WeChat (which means “tiny message”) was released in January 2011 and is operated by the Chinese internet giant Tencent. The Messenger is similar to the then popular ICQ and today's WhatsApp and it was initially designed for the Asian region only. However, the breakthrough came with the introduction of the voice messaging feature. The developers launched a convenient way of communication, compared to the exhausting input of Chinese characters. It quickly gained popularity among the social network and was used by approximately 76% of the Chinese population by 2015. Originally, WeChat was only available in Chinese. By now, the messenger supports the most common languages.

Apps and Mini-apps – What Separates WeChat from Other Messengers

Another reason for the great popularity of the social network is the huge selection of mini-programs that are offered within the WeChat app.

For explanation: in the Western world, the native app is more common. No matter if it’s a bank, transport service, or newspaper agency, most service providers offer their own application for mobile devices, which are then limited to a few functions. As a result, it is normal for us to accumulate plenty of different apps for different needs on our smartphones.

This is different with WeChat. Here, the app itself acts as a native app with not just a few but a variety of functions. In addition, functions from external service providers can be added and embedded. This is an advantage for users, since you no longer have to switch between apps. Additionally, it saves you storage space and you no longer have to download and install your apps by yourself.

The versatility of the applications seems almost limitless. On the one hand, WeChat offers countless functions suitable for everyday use: telephoning, sending (voice) messages, posting pictures, renting a bicycle, booking trips, buying a cinema ticket, booking a table in your favourite restaurant, looking for the latest offers, arranging a doctor's appointment and much more – all within one single app.

On the other hand, WeChat also offers service providers the opportunity to strengthen their customer’s loyalty through mini-programs. It is even possible to provide an own maintenance or customer service within the WeChat-app.

Long story short: WeChat offers a solution to almost any problem in almost any area of life.

Payment

One of the most powerful features of WeChat is the integrated payment method. If you want to give money to a friend, but don’t have any cash with you, or you have to pay for an online bill, you would probably fall back on the services of apps such as PayPal or Klarna.

WeChat gives you the ability to link your account directly to your bank account for a fast and easy payment method. This method can also be used for your daily expenses. If you want to buy coffee at your local coffee shop in China, all you have to do is scan the provided QR code and confirm the payment. Of course, this also applies to restaurants. In some restaurants, food can even be ordered and paid for at the table, by using a QR code.

With the introduction of this simple payment method by smartphone, WeChat made sure that fewer and fewer people use cash.

Call a Cab

Another useful mini-program is the cab finder. This feature allows you to locate the nearest cab and contact the driver via WeChat. Once the vehicle arrives at the arranged location, you will be notified via the messenger.

Find Friends

If you are new to a city and are trying to get in touch with other people, there is also a simple solution for this occasion. If you use the appropriate feature, you only have to perform a shaking gesture with your mobile phone. If another person in your area has also performed this gesture in the same moment, these two people will get introduced to each other through the app.

Shopping, Offers and Advertising

WeChat offers assistance with shopping as well. When purchasing a new pair of trousers, you can simply scan the QR code to find out whether the same product is available in an online shop or another local store. If this is the case, WeChat will redirect you to the particular websites, or the app will open a navigation system, and guide the customers to the shop in the quickest way. It is also possible to deposit a product via the app.

The Downside of WeChat: Data Protection is Non-existent

If we look at the examples listed above, it becomes clear that WeChat offers unbelievable added value to its users and is, for understandable reasons, so popular. However, the use of WeChat also has a big catch: data protection.

In 2016, Amnesty International compiled a ranking which evaluated the most popular messaging services companies in the world with focus on data protection. The Chinese service came in last – with 0 out of 100 possible points. Facebook, back then, was able to come in first with 73 out of 100 points. It is no secret that Tencent collaborates with the Chinese government and shares their users’ personal information. The current privacy policy states:

We share your information with selected recipients who have a legal basis and valid jurisdiction to request such data. These categories of recipients include: government, public, regulatory, judicial and law enforcement bodies or authorities we share your Personal Information within our group of companies .

The reason for the collection of data according to the privacy policy is “to provide WeChat to you , and to use the features of the WeChat Open Platform”. Due to the way how WeChat works, a huge amount of personal data about a user’s behavior are stored and passed on to Chinese authorities.

In a country like China, where all competing messenger services from the US are banned, citizens have no choice but to agree to the privacy policy. Abandoning WeChat would be a major social disadvantage.

WeChat is Changing the Consumption Behaviour of an Entire Society

What has long been smiled at as a cheap copy of Facebook and WhatsApp is today the perhaps most successful and revolutionary social network. The app, developed by Tencent, is not just an application to share with friends. WeChat is changing the consumption behaviour of an entire society. It ranges from paying cashless to getting in touch with each other via the shaking function. WeChat is omnipresent and connects the analogue world with the digital world.

The versatility of the features makes the Chinese social network so attractive. This should inspire their competitors from the US and from all over the world. However, because of the horrible privacy setup, you should definitely stay away from WeChat. The protection of private data should always be a top priority. Even if you think that you have nothing to hide, you should always be the only one in charge of your data. You should always be the one to decide with whom, and when, and if you want to share your data.

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