Like Roman dictators, consumer brands in China have good reason to beware the Ides of March. It’s the date of the national broadcaster’s consumer rights gala, a two-hour festival of exposés famous for undercover sting operations.
The annual broadcast, known as the “3.15 Gala” after its date, is appointment television, promising embarrassing revelations about well-known companies. It can drive consumer outrage and crackdowns from regulators, and it’s often followed by unwelcome attention from other media.
This year, tech came under heavy fire. Out of nine segments in the broadcast, the first four focused on allegations about misuse of technology. Well-known brands like Qihoo 360 search, UC browser, and the job search sites Zhilian and Liepin came under fire for accusations related to false advertising and poor privacy protection. At least five companies saw their apps kicked off Chinese app stores in the days following the show.
Major state media have repeatedly focused on tech-themed investigations. Renwu Magazine, owned by the People’s Daily group, has been on the warpath over working conditions, with viral investigative work targeting both pressure on delivery drivers and extreme limits on toilet time for white-collar workers. The same magazine was also among outlets that highlighted concerns over invasive use of face recognition.
CCTV investigates CCTV
The broadcast began by accusing retailers of misusing face recognition to monitor visitors to their stores.
CCTV reported that Kohler, an American bathroom fixture brand, installed closed-circuit cameras in many stores to capture customers’ facial information without user consent. The company installed cameras with face recognition capabilities in thousands of its stores, allowing the company to identify and track consumers across multiple visits to different showrooms without their consent.
In addition to Kohler, CCTV said that more than 20 brands have installed face recognition systems in their stores across the country, including well-known brands like BMW and Max Mara. A manager at a surveillance camera supplier told undercover reporters they have already installed millions in different stores.
Officially implemented on Jan. 1, 2021, China’s new Civil Code bans processing personal information without consent.
Resumes for sale
The program also accused three well-known online recruitment platforms for leaking job seekers’ resumes: Zhaopin, 51Job, and Liepin. All three have since been removed from a number of Chinese Android app stores.
Online recruitment platforms are the first choice for most people to seek jobs. However, they are doing a bad job protecting user’s personal information. CCTV’s reporter paid RMB 7 (about $1) to a buyer in a QQ group called “58 Zhilian Fans” for one resume from Zhaopin, including the applicant’s name, gender, age, photo, contact information, work, and education experience.
It appears that the black market in resumes serves both actual recruiters as well as scammers interested in personal information. 36Kr, which examined the practice following CCTV, reported that for small businesses it can be cheaper to buy a resumes secondhand and contact possibly hires directly than to register an account.
Weak privacy protections make it easy for resume brokers to export resumes in bulk. On Zhaopin, anyone with a corporate account can download an unlimited number of resumes. The registration of corporate accounts is also loosely regulated on these platforms. CCTV found that applications with fake certificates could pass through the application process.
Ads for fake medicine have plagued search since 2016, when a college student named Wei Zexi died after receiving an unproved cancer treatment promoted by ads on Baidu which were not clearly distinguished from search results, prompting a widespread outcry. The case drew wide public attention, forcing the tech giant to change its advertising practices and Chinese regulators to tighten control.
Three years on, CCTV accused the Alibaba-backed UC Browser and Qihoo’s 360 Search for displaying results that appear organic but are in fact advertisements.
The broadcast also accused intermediaries of helping unlicensed firms promote medical products. Normally, a company needs authorization to advertise a medical product or treatment. But third-party ad agents for the two companies told undercover reporters that they could use idle accounts that were previously registered by authorized companies.
“No need to fear accounts being blocked after posting questionable information. We can always switch to another one, because we have hundreds of them,” said one agent for 360 Search.
Both of the apps were removed from all major Chinese Android app stores two days after the exposé.
Some of these fake ads are pretty dangerous: The Beijing News found that ads on “a search engine” recommended ineffective treatments for heart attacks.
After searching with the keyword of heart attack, the results display a list of medical advertisements. One of them says the disease could be cured by taking their traditional Chinese medicine without surgery.
A contact from the recommended hospital told Beijing News over phone that the coronary stents treatment typically used in hospitals could only stretch the blood vessels, rather than dissolve the blood clot. And patients taking such surgery have to take western medicines their whole life. In contrast, their traditional Chinese medicine can dissolve blood clots, and patients don’t have to take medicines after being cured. The medicine will cost about RMB 3,000 ($460) a month depending on different cases.
When chatting with an agent from the hospital through WeChat, the app warned the reporter about the contact and warned to beware of fraud. Doctors at an authorized hospital said “Stents are a standard treatment for heart attack, because blood clots are difficult to remove.”
Malware targeting the elderly
Last in the tech block, the program criticized four malware cleaner apps—Tencent’s Mobile Phone Manager Pro, Memory Optimization Master, APUS’s Superior Cleaning Master, and Smart Cleaner for collecting user information and pushing scam advertisements, suggesting that these scams target the elderly.
The program said some of the cleaners were malware themselves, featuring a 70-year-old woman surnamed Li. Li said that her phone became very slow even though she often cleans viruses and memories in smartphone with cleaner apps. It turned out that these apps are doing the exact opposite of what they say.
A third-party test agency consulted by CCTV found that Mobile Phone Manager Pro read users’ app list more than 800 times, GPS location more than 50 times, smart device code 900 times, and SIM card code 1,300 times within less than 10 seconds. Using this data, CCTV reported, the apps helped target users with vulgar content and scams.
Many Chinese consumers and media were surprised that Tesla was not named at the broadcast. The EV maker has been a popular target online and in Chinese media during the past year, with accusations ranging from sharp sales practices to safety issues. Huxiu commented on the absence, and warned that the company is likely to face more consumer and media pressure.
Most of the named companies, including Zhaopin.com, Liepin.com, 51job.com, UC Browser, and 360 search had issued apologies hours after the gala concluded, promising to address the mentioned issues.
Given previous experience, the public remains skeptical about whether public embarrassment will actually lead companies to solve the issues. Chinese netizens voiced their concerns on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo.
Responding to the Weibo hashtag “Monitoring institutions help to save RMB 4,4 billion consumer costs,” a Weibo user with the handle Fuchenruyi wrote:
“The monitoring institutions could have done a better job. We watch 315 gala every year, yet each year has more shocking cases.”
Another Weibo user, with an unprintable name, wrote,
“315 International Consumer Rights Day might as well be renamed “315 Apology Day.” Afflicting customers who wait for 315 to solve their complaints only get perfunctory apologies…”
Rednet, a news outlet backed by Hunan provincial government, cautioned that:
In most cases, the exposure of product quality scandals only brings short-term attention, rather than solving the problems completely. After a short while, the same problems will revive and become even worse. Obviously, it’s impossible to eliminate all of the quality problems with one single show, which is held only once per year and could only cover a few cases.