Chinese search giant Baidu is being sued for illegally obtaining user data such as location and contacts, according to the Jiangsu Consumer Council who are bringing the case. The Nanjing Intermediate People’s Court has formally filed the case, according to the council (in Chinese). The news comes just days after WeChat denied it reads private messages to train its AI and Ant Financial came under criticism for underhand permissions for Sesame Credit in Alipay.

The alleged Baidu breach came from two mobile apps: the browser and the standalone search app. Without prior consent from users, the smartphone apps collected data on users’ contacts, location, messages and also modified system settings, according to the consumer council. The council finds that the data collected does not match the requirements of these apps to provide services and as such the collection goes beyond reasonable expectations.

According to the council, they brought the matters to Baidu’s attention in July 2017 but after not having sufficient communication or signs of rectification from Baidu, they have pursued the case. The Jiangsu Consumer Council filed its complaint on December 11th, 2017 and Nanjing Intermediate People’s Court has formally accepted the case on January 2nd.

In an emailed response, Baidu says that they have been in contact with the Council for some time, and have addressed their concerns:

We explained in detail the scenarios under which we use authorization to access information – for instance, relevant Baidu applications’ access to geographic location, text messages and address books are within the scope of reasonable use. In addition, users are informed via a pop-up window about authentication before using our services such as weather information, login verification and social media. If the user does not give their authorization, Baidu cannot access the user’s information. Even after the authorization, users can turn off the corresponding function.

Local media has reported (in Chinese) that Jiangsu Consumer Council’s deputy secretary general has said that the litigation is aimed not just as Baidu but encourage the whole mobile app industry to pay more attention to protecting consumer privacy.

This is the latest in a long line of litigation involving Baidu both in China and abroad. The news has broken just as Tencent and Ant Financial have made headlines for their handling of user data as the subject of private companies’ data policies continues to draw public attention.

Frank Hersey is a Beijing-based tech reporter who's been coming to China since 2001. He tries to go beyond the headlines to explain the context and impact of developments in China's tech sector. Get in...

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