China’s popular apps have found themselves in hot water as the public scrutinizes how tech companies collect user data. Companies including iQiyi, Youku, and Ele.me have responded to the latest criticisms relating to user privacy.
Earlier this week, Baidu CEO Robin Li’s claim that people in China “are more open, or are not that sensitive about privacy” sparked a public outcry across social media. An internet user quoted by Xinhua News said: “Chinese internet users are more open-minded towards personal privacy and are less sensitive does not mean that their data can be acquired without permission, doesn’t mean it is legal for companies to take their user data without consent.”
This prompted a reporter from the Beijing News to do a “privacy test” on China’s 10 popular apps on Android system. The reporter found that 2 of the ten apps do not ask for user permission, and 5 can’t function normally if users deny access to their personal data. Two apps by Baidu — Baidu’s online forum Tieba and its video streaming site iQiyi — have access to certain functions as default including, microphone, phone status, location settings, contacts, and more.
On Android 6.0 or higher, apps are expected to ask for permission to access information stored on the device like location data or images and privacy settings pop up when an app is installed for the first time.
In response, iQiyi said they set the access to phone status as default to enable videos to automatically pause when a call comes in. And the access to the microphone is to allow users to call customer service when using their app to purchase tickets.
Youku’s app has access to privacy-sensitive features like camera, location service, and microphone without user authorization. In response, Youku said the new version of the app does not have access to sensitive data without user consent.
Ele.me, who is also on the “watch list,” explained that the access to storage and location services are not intended to steal user data or intrude on user privacy. The app needs access to storage to allow users to store content like images and videos and the access to phone and location services is necessary to track delivery man’s location and to ensure the food is actually delivered to the hands of its customers.
Amid the recent Facebook data scandal, it is easy to assume that Chinese internet users are more “comfortable” with their data being collected and used. Now seeing China’s tech companies under public scrutiny of how they collect the user data, perhaps they’re not so comfortable after all.