Mobile phone users in Hong Kong may not be surprised to hear that one of the three most popular mobile-chat applications in Asia systematically censors politically-sensitive content and may also have network security flaws.
A study by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, set up to research internet censorship, found that the Line messaging application (or “app”) censors sensitive keywords on any account registered with a Chinese phone number – even when the user is located outside the mainland.
Line is a Japanese proprietary application for the exchange of instant messages on smartphones and personal computers.
The Canadian researchers also found that chat traffic sent over 3G networks was unencrypted in the application’s global Android version at least as late as August 20, 2013, which potentially allows third parties to eavesdrop on private communications.
“I am not very worried about using Line because I am aware that network security is limited and because of what I already know about censorship on [Chinese chat-app] WeChat,” said Juniata Kwok.
But Jo Mitchell, another Hong Kong resident, said she grew concerned when she learned that the Thai government had announced in August that it would conduct a surveillance of Line conversations to “ensure the rule of law, order and national security”.
“I told my friends in Thailand to stop using the app completely. It’s a complete invasion of privacy and there’s also the concern that conversations or jokes could be misunderstood, read out of context or twisted,” she said.
Line, produced by a Japanese subsidiary of South Korean internet giant Naver Corporation, has seen a rapid increase in its user base since its release in June 2011. It now has 300 million users in 230 countries globally and has the largest market share for messaging apps in Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan.
Last December, the company launched a Chinese version of the app called Lianwo, in partnership with Chinese software firm Qihoo. A company spokesman said that Lianwo “is optimised for its local environment … in accordance with local standards and regulations,” but denied that censorship functions were active in its global service.
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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition on December 2, 2013 as Chat app accused of censoring Chinese users