Australian military personnel have been banned from using the Chinese instant messaging app WeChat as it has “not been authorised for use”. In recent years, there have been increasing global fears regarding digital espionage. The United States has begun restricting the entry of foreign entities in its telecommunication networks.
WeChat is a multimedia instant messaging service popular in China. The app was released in 2011, and by 2018, it had amassed over one billion monthly users. However, some have speculated that WeChat’s growth is slowing due to its inability to penetrate markets outside of Asia. In 2016, Amnesty ranked WeChat last on its list of effective encryption systems, scoring it a 0 out of 100. Counterparts WhatsApp and Facebook message received 73 on 100.
WeChat is one of the most valuable subsidiaries of Chinese web giant Tencent Holdings. Tencent was founded by Huateng Pony Ma in 1998, and is based out of Shenzhen. Pony Ma is a member of the National People’s Congress. Tencent is worth over $500 billion, the fifth most valuable listed company in the world. Besides owning WeChat, the company offers a number of internet-based services such as music and video streaming, online gaming, and payment. The company has holdings in firms ranging from Snapchat and Spotify, to Tesla.
In recent years, there has been increasing concern regarding the security threats posed by Chinese corporations, particularly telecommunications companies. Washington has prevented a number of Chinese companies from entering US markets due to national security reasons. This includes blocking the sale of money-transfer service Moneygram to Ant Financial, an affiliate of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba; the sale of Lattice Semiconductor to Canyon Bridge Capital Partners; and telecom company Huawei’s deal with AT&T.
FBI director Christopher Wray said that these entities are “beholden to foreign governments that don't share our values”. They thus have the capacity “to maliciously modify or steal information” or “conduct undetected espionage”.
In October 2017, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation claimed that it had identified “a number of states and other actors conducting espionage and foreign interference against Australia.” In December, Prime Minister Turnbull told reporters that there were “unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process” by foreign powers. He noted “disturbing reports about Chinese influence”.
The Australian Department of Defence has banned its personnel from using the Chinese app WeChat on official networks and mobile phones.
"Software and applications that do not meet Defence standards will not be authorised for use on Defence networks and mobile devices," the department said in a statement. "Defence has a strict policy concerning the use of social media on its networks and mobile devices. Defence allows very few applications on Defence mobile devices. WeChat has not been authorised for use." Earlier this month, the department told Business Insider that defence personnel no longer used Huawei and ZTE phones.
A security assessment is reportedly underway for WeChat and counterpart WhatsApp. According to the Australian Financial Review, which has an inside source, the Australian state is investigating the app’s potential to exploit user data. Additionally, there are concerns surrounding WeChat’s ties in Beijing. "The understanding is that applications like WeChat have a higher ability to aggregate and monitor data," the source told the newspaper. "They [Defence] would be very nervous about software being loaded onto a device which could then access a secure military network."
This move is not unprecedented. In December last year, the Indian Defence ministry issued a ban on the use of WeChat and 41 other Chinese apps by security officials. “As per reliable inputs, a number of Android/IOS apps developed by Chinese developers or having Chinese links are reportedly either spyware or other malicious ware. Use of these apps by our force personnel can be detrimental to data security having implications on the force and national security,” the memo, viewed by the Indian Express, read.
Analyst Li Yi, fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, stated that this could signify that “Australia is standing on the same side as the US”. “However, it is understandable that the Australian defence department banned staff from using WeChat on concern over messages being monitored by the Chinese government,” Li added. Others stated that Huawei and ZTE would continue to proliferate international markets regardless of the official government stance.
Our assessment is that cyber-crime and espionage are growing security threats for nations across the world. The Australian military has demonstrated that it is addressing these threats. Australia is amongst a number of countries that are increasingly scrutinising Chinese technology.