Security

App attempts a rare trick in China: online privacy

BEIJING, Sept 6 (Reuters) – In a country where privacy
protections are considered weak and anything-goes data
collection has become the norm, Chinese tech entrepreneur Yang
Geng stands out.

His service, LeakZero, helps people surf the web
anonymously, protect passwords and send encrypted messages. By
design, he can’t find out the names of the app’s users or even
know how many there are. It doesn’t have a so-called ‘back
door.’
And as far as he knows, it’s the only one of its kind on
China.
Yang and the users of his service are fighting uphill and
unusual battle for privacy in a place where the government is
deeply involved in Big Data, and companies have done little to
resist.
Tech industry executives have described the country’s
citizens as less sensitive about privacy than their Western
counterparts, with Chinese search engine giant chief Robin Li
saying last year that many in China were willing to trade it for
convenience, safety or efficiency.
But that mindset has sparked debate about the consequences
of access, with growing concern over the illegal collection of
data and the rise of a black market for personal information.
The Chinese government has strengthened data protection
laws, but foreign encrypted messaging apps like KakaoTalk and
Line are banned in China while others, like Whatsapp or Signal,
are occasionally blocked.
The most widely used homegrown services, Internet giant
Tencent’s messaging app 0700.HK WeChat and search engine Baidu
BIDU.O are heavily monitored and censored by Chinese
authorities.
The Cyberspace Administration of China did not respond to a
request for comment.
Yang and users of LeakZero, which works with other
companies’ messaging apps and email platforms, say they are
trying to find another way.
Hu Zhicheng, 23, who uses the company’s search engine,
password manager and encrypted messaging service, said
proliferation of targeted advertising showed how much of his
personal data had been collected.
“These few years, I’ve slowly realised personal privacy is
very important,” Hu said. “In China, you would receive a lot of
spam calls and a lot of texts, all of them ads.”

NONSENSE MESSAGES
Yang, who used to be head of security for Amazon China and
lived in the U.S. for 15 years, said he started researching
privacy protection tools in China in 2017 but came up empty.
He started the company that would eventually launch LeakZero
in March 2018, basing it on his belief that personal information
should only be seen by the original user or an intended
recipient.
His hope, he said, was that he would quickly find others in
China who felt the same way.
“I don’t think I have the power to change people’s
thoughts,” Yang said. “The only thing I can do is to meet
people’s needs, and if the solution and timing is right, then
this will take off.”
Users launch LeakZero’s encrypted messaging service and use
a random name generator to create an ID. Then, when they open a
messaging app like WeChat, LeakZero is “layered” on top.
When they type a message, they can use LeakZero to turn
their message into a nonsense string of letters and numbers in
WeChat. The recipient must use LeakZero’s app to decrypt the
message.
Yang says users are superfans who spread the message and
even help new joiners troubleshoot. So far, his encrypted
messaging app has more than 34,000 aliases – although by design,
he does not know how many users are behind them.
The company got $2 million in seed money to start up, and is
free for now. The plan is to create something of value and later
figure out a way to charge for it, he said.
His apps are available on the global app stores for Android
and iOS, and he said that there was a universal need for such
software, but that his main target for now is the Chinese
audience.
Another user, who declined to give his name because of the
sensitivity of the issue, told Reuters he started using the app
last summer, eager to find an extra layer of protection. He has
five telephone numbers to avoid spam calls, common on Chinese
networks.
“I think I come from a position of fear, or horror really,”
he said. “You, as a person, your whole course of movement can be
tracked. From when you step out of the door, there’s a
surveillance camera in the elevator.”

DIFFERENCES IN CHINA
Although some Western tech giants such as Facebook, Apple,
Alphabet and Amazon are blocked or restricted in China, and have
opposed laws proposed by governments like Australia that would
require them to provide access to private encrypted data linked
to suspected illegal activities, Yang says he is happy to
cooperate with the Chinese government.
He has not heard about his app from authorities or WeChat’s
parent company, Tencent, he said. The messaging apps his service
operates on can see which users use LeakZero, though users can
set up multiple aliases.
“I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong,” he said. “And
second, I didn’t do this for any political motives. I just think
in the course of my normal life and work I have this need.”
There would also not be much for authorities to find, he
believes, given how little user information he keeps.
“If you give me even a little bit of info, at some point I’m
obligated to tell somebody. But if I don’t know then I don’t
have this ability,” Yang said.
Still, he said, he thought there would be far more demand
for such privacy, expecting his app’s search engine to process
millions of searches per day. In reality, it has only registered
up to 140,000 searches a day since its launch.
For the future, he is looking to develop products for
corporate clients.
“Before I thought this was a universal demand,” he said.
“But now looking at it, the people who are aware of this problem
and would take some action and to protect themselves and their
data, it’s a pretty small group.”


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