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2018-05-29 12:40:56

Think twice before you click: Services marketed to suspicious spouses and overprotective parents offer to track down a target for a fee by accessing their location through chat apps like WeChat and QQ.

A journalist from Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper recently uncovered several such services openly advertising on WeChat public accounts, e-commerce platform Taobao, and forums and blogs hosted by internet giant Baidu.

The reporter found that the companies used clickbait articles, games, and red envelopes — virtual cash packets gifted on WeChat — to lure users. One company, Insider Cloud Platform, offered a range of bait options for different targets, from military news to horoscopes to celebrity gossip.

Once the user takes the bait, the applet asks permission to access their location, which has become such a common request from web pages and mini apps that most users consent without much hesitation. But accepting the request not only sends their exact location, but also stores that granted permission indefinitely: Even if a user opts out, the service can still provide an approximate location based on their IP address.

Sixth Tone spoke to a customer service representative for one operation who said that location-tracing services are priced at around 600 yuan ($95). The vendor’s Taobao store advertised only three products: 17-yuan socks, a “Korean-style” knitted vest for 1,088 yuan, and the tracking service — which was somewhat confusingly described as a “Car micro GPS positioning tracker remote listening wireless strong magnetic mini invisible super small tracker recording.”

Selling personal information such as someone’s location is a criminal offense in China, and is punishable by a fine or up to seven years’ imprisonment, depending on the severity of the case. Though WeChat location-tracing services were first reported by tech media in April 2017, the Tencent-owned app still has not introduced measures to stop them, The Paper says.

Chinese applications often ask for permissions beyond their ordinary scope of operations. Even state news agency Xinhua’s English-language app once asked for access to a user’s location, and could not be used if the permission were refused.

But location-sharing harbors serious risks. In January, a well-known Shanghai artist barely escaped a knife attack from a man who had followed her through the locations she inadvertently revealed on her WeChat Moments social feed. Even the Chinese government regards location-sharing as a national security issue: In 2016, soldiers were warned against using ride-hailing apps while on base, as such services reveal the user’s location.

Editor: Qian Jinghua.

(Header image: Bai Kelin/IC)