China’s mobile apps collect too much data, says consumer body

03-Dec-2018 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:10 AM Print This Post

A large number of smartphone apps available in China have been found to be collecting an excessive amount of personal data, including user location, contact lists and mobile numbers, according to a mainland consumer rights watchdog.

The China Consumers Association said in a report published on Wednesday that 91 out of 100 mobile apps that it recently reviewed are suspected of data abuse, including Alipay from Ant Financial Services, photo-editing software provider Meitu and bike-sharing platform Ofo.

Other offending apps that the report singled out include those from navigation, travel and hotel booking, cloud storage and wealth management services providers.

The findings were gleaned from the consumer watchdog’s review of the user terms and privacy policy of 100 apps downloaded from both Apple and Android app stores on the mainland in September. It also reviewed social messaging apps QQ and WeChat from Tencent Holdings as well as Baidu-backed video streaming service iQiyi.

China warns internet companies over weak data protection policies

The review comes as Chinese users grow increasingly concerned about user privacy and how China’s technology companies are handling personal information. In China, laws require companies to store users’ data on servers in the country, and tech companies reportedly pass on data when the Chinese government makes a request.

“Most of the apps [reviewed] received a pass or lower rating,” the consumer watchdog’s report said. “The problem [of excessive data harvesting] is especially severe among smaller app providers, which have no privacy clauses or provide unreasonable terms.” It said protection of consumer data in China was “under severe challenge”, which warrants the attention of regulators.

Representatives of Hong Kong-listed Tencent, privately held Ant Financial and Nasdaq-traded iQiyi did not immediately respond to separate inquiries for comment.

Ofo, which is backed by Ant Financial, declined to comment. Ant Financial is an affiliate of Alibaba Group Holding, which is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

A spokeswoman for Hong Kong-listed Meitu, replying to the Post’s inquiry on Friday, said the company was dedicated to protecting user data and provides a clear description of the personal information that it collects, including purpose, methods of processing and data-security measures.

The Chinese consumer watchdog’s review also comes on the heels of the European Union’s introduction of the world’s most far-reaching data privacy regulation, the general Data Protection Regulation that took effect in May.

Harvesting and analysing massive amounts of data have become increasingly important for tech companies, as these provide the fuel for their artificial-intelligence initiatives, which are used to better understand their customers and develop improved services.

The past few years, however, has seen increased awareness by consumers of data privacy amid the rise in cases of cybersecurity breaches, social media controversies and other unwanted practices.

In January, the country’s three largest internet companies Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent separately faced public scrutiny over how each one handled the information their apps collect.

The Jiangsu Consumer Council filed a lawsuit against New York-listed Baidu for illegally collecting consumers’ personal data through its search app and mobile browser. Baidu said at the time it was aware of the litigation and had conducted multiple rounds of talks with the group over the past several months to explain and address its concerns.

Alibaba-backed Ant Financial apologised for making the opt-in to its social credit scoring service the default when users opened a new report in the app, a move that angered some people who felt the company was misleading them into handing over their data.

Tencent clarified that the content of conversations on WeChat are stored only on the user’s mobile phone, computer or other communications device, adding that it does not use any of the content for big data analysis, after Chinese automotive industry tycoon Li Shufu reportedly slammed the company for invading user privacy.


Category: China

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