Australian officials are cutting ties to China’s most popular social media platform.
Why the Aussie defense department just banned WeChat
Staff members at Australia’s Department of Defence are no longer allowed to download and use the WeChat app on their work phones.
The department confirmed the ban with the Australian Financial Review, saying that it does not “provide or support the use of unauthorized software.”
The department has not replied to a request for comment from Inkstone.
Owned by Chinese internet conglomerate Tencent, WeChat is an all-in-one app, combining the features of Facebook and WhatsApp as well as an electronic payment system. It now has one billion monthly user accounts.
Experts say it is not unusual for a defense department to forbid the use of certain apps or services on work devices.
“The default position is that work phones are provided with a limited range of apps; essentially all apps are banned unless there is a requirement to have them and they pass a security assessment,” says Danielle Cave, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Cave believes it is likely that WeChat failed to pass the security assessment by the defense department.
But this is not a total ban: it appears that defense staff can still use WeChat on their personal phones.
Tencent has not responded to a request made by Inkstone.
WeChat has been criticized about security and privacy issues. The app was given a score of zero out of 100 by Amnesty International in a privacy survey, thanks to its lack of end-to-end encryption.
Users of WeChat and other social media platforms in China routinely find that messages containing politically sensitive content are blocked, according to a study carried out by the University of Toronto in 2016.
The reported ban comes as tensions rise between China and Australia.
The Chinese government has been accused of interfering in Australian politics, a claim it strongly denies.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cited “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” in Australia country last December, and has introduced new laws designed to prevent foreign interference.
China is also Australia’s largest trading partner. In 2016-17, China bought close to 30% of Australia’s total exports.
Cave says the defense department's new rule on the use of WeChat shouldn't be interpreted as a sign of worsening relations between the two countries.
“This decision is about cybersecurity,” Cave says.
“Governments across the world will have to undertake risk assessments and make decisions about which mobile apps they are comfortable allowing officials to download on work phones.”
Australia hasn’t gone as far as India.
In December, its Ministry of Defence reportedly asked all personnel to remove and uninstall 42 Chinese apps from their work and personal phones.
Australian defense personnel can use Facebook on a limited basis, while the use of WhatsApp is now under “security assessment” by the department, according to the Australian Financial Review.