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App attempts a rare trick in China: online privacy

Huizhong Wu

BEIJING, Sept 6 (Reuters) - In a country where privacy protections are considered weak and anything-goes data collection has become the norm, Chinese tech entrepreneur Yang Geng stands out.

His service, LeakZero, helps people surf the web anonymously, protect passwords and send encrypted messages. By design, he can't find out the names of the app's users or even know how many there are. It doesn't have a so-called 'back door.'

And as far as he knows, it's the only one of its kind on China.

Yang and the users of his service are fighting uphill and unusual battle for privacy in a place where the government is deeply involved in Big Data, and companies have done little to resist.

Tech industry executives have described the country's citizens as less sensitive about privacy than their Western counterparts, with Chinese search engine giant chief Robin Li saying last year that many in China were willing to trade it for convenience, safety or efficiency.

But that mindset has sparked debate about the consequences of access, with growing concern over the illegal collection of data and the rise of a black market for personal information.

The Chinese government has strengthened data protection laws, but foreign encrypted messaging apps like KakaoTalk and Line are banned in China while others, like Whatsapp or Signal, are occasionally blocked.

The most widely used homegrown services, Internet giant Tencent's messaging app WeChat and search engine Baidu are heavily monitored and censored by Chinese authorities.

The Cyberspace Administration of China did not respond to a request for comment.

Yang and users of LeakZero, which works with other companies' messaging apps and email platforms, say they are trying to find another way.

Hu Zhicheng, 23, who uses the company's search engine, password manager and encrypted messaging service, said proliferation of targeted advertising showed how much of his personal data had been collected.

"These few years, I've slowly realised personal privacy is very important," Hu said. "In China, you would receive a lot of spam calls and a lot of texts, all of them ads."

NONSENSE MESSAGES

Yang, who used to be head of security for Amazon China and lived in the U.S. for 15 years, said he started researching privacy protection tools in China in 2017 but came up empty.

He started the company that would eventually launch LeakZero in March 2018, basing it on his belief that personal information should only be seen by the original user or an intended recipient.

His hope, he said, was that he would quickly find others in China who felt the same way.

"I don't think I have the power to change people's thoughts," Yang said. "The only thing I can do is to meet people's needs, and if the solution and timing is right, then this will take off."

Users launch LeakZero's encrypted messaging service and use a random name generator to create an ID. Then, when they open a messaging app like WeChat, LeakZero is "layered" on top.

When they type a message, they can use LeakZero to turn their message into a nonsense string of letters and numbers in WeChat. The recipient must use LeakZero's app to decrypt the message.

Yang says users are superfans who spread the message and even help new joiners troubleshoot. So far, his encrypted messaging app has more than 34,000 aliases - although by design, he does not know how many users are behind them.

The company got $2 million in seed money to start up, and is free for now. The plan is to create something of value and later figure out a way to charge for it, he said.

His apps are available on the global app stores for Android and iOS, and he said that there was a universal need for such software, but that his main target for now is the Chinese audience.

Another user, who declined to give his name because of the sensitivity of the issue, told Reuters he started using the app last summer, eager to find an extra layer of protection. He has five telephone numbers to avoid spam calls, common on Chinese networks.

"I think I come from a position of fear, or horror really," he said. "You, as a person, your whole course of movement can be tracked. From when you step out of the door, there's a surveillance camera in the elevator."

DIFFERENCES IN CHINA

Although some Western tech giants such as Facebook, Apple, Alphabet and Amazon are blocked or restricted in China, and have opposed laws proposed by governments like Australia that would require them to provide access to private encrypted data linked to suspected illegal activities, Yang says he is happy to cooperate with the Chinese government.

He has not heard about his app from authorities or WeChat's parent company, Tencent, he said. The messaging apps his service operates on can see which users use LeakZero, though users can set up multiple aliases.

"I don't believe I've done anything wrong," he said. "And second, I didn't do this for any political motives. I just think in the course of my normal life and work I have this need."

There would also not be much for authorities to find, he believes, given how little user information he keeps.

"If you give me even a little bit of info, at some point I'm obligated to tell somebody. But if I don't know then I don't have this ability," Yang said.

Still, he said, he thought there would be far more demand for such privacy, expecting his app's search engine to process millions of searches per day. In reality, it has only registered up to 140,000 searches a day since its launch.

For the future, he is looking to develop products for corporate clients.

"Before I thought this was a universal demand," he said. "But now looking at it, the people who are aware of this problem and would take some action and to protect themselves and their data, it's a pretty small group."

(Reporting by Huizhong Wu; Editing by Brenda Goh and Gerry Doyle)