The University of California distributed a warning to staff in January advising against the use of communication platforms such as WeChat and WhatsApp for those traveling in China.
The UC received the advisory notice from WorldAware, a risk management company the UC consults with, said Myla Edmond, director of marketing and communications for the UC Education Abroad Program.
Students at UC Davis and UC Berkeley received the email regarding the travel warning earlier this month, according to CNN.
Edmond added the UC distributed the recommendation to staff, but never intended for it to be sent to students.
“UC staff shared that recommendation with other UC staff as an information item, but never as a recommendation nor as a message for our students,” Edmond said.
The U.S. Department of State issued a travel warning Jan. 3, advising travelers to exercise increased caution when in China. The alert level is currently a two on a four-point scale.
Edmond said the UC decided not to forward the recommendation against using the communication platforms to students because the alert level was not high enough to warrant such a reaction.
“The Department of State’s alert level has not increased and so we haven’t changed any of our processes,” Edmond said. “We continue to monitor that but we haven’t changed anything.”
WorldAware sent the recommendation to the UC following the alert issued by the Department of State.
Peter Reiher, an adjunct professor of computer science, said he believes most forms of digital communication are susceptible to serious breaches of privacy and travelers should therefore assume that any online activity can be divulged.
Reiher added China demands a certain degree of access to whatever data is being passed through legal applications such as WeChat and WhatsApp.
“The Chinese are very, very sophisticated at cyber espionage,” Reiher said. “It would be safest to assume that anything that you bring into China on a computer or a smartphone … is going to be available to (the Chinese government).”
A member of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at UCLA, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation for speaking publicly about the Chinese government, said these applications are China’s primary platforms for messaging and social media.
“WeChat is such an important social aspect in Chinese people’s lives,” the CSSA member said. “Almost everyone in China uses WeChat to communicate with family and friends.”
The CSSA member said because these social platforms are so integrated into their daily lives, most Chinese people are not worried that the government might be monitoring their communications.
“Personally, I am not too concerned with it. I know there (have) been rumors that the government is … stalking everyone … monitoring everyone’s record,” the CSSA member said. “But… I haven’t seen any concrete evidence on that, so personally I am not concerned with it.”
Reiher said travelers should avoid being critical of their host countries while traveling due to possible cultural and political differences.
“Doing things like talking about democracy movements in China, or about various kinds of religious groups that the Chinese do not approve of, or whether Tibet should be independent … while you are in China is certainly a hazardous thing to do,” Reiher added.
Edmond said while the recommendation was not intended to be distributed to students, they should still research and be mindful of the possible risks they face when communicating in China.
Reiher added travelers should keep in mind that behavior that is permissible in their home countries might not be acceptable in other countries.
“Anybody who is an international traveler – in particular, an international student – is a guest of the country in question and … should respect the laws, … culture and customs of that country,” Reiher said.