Chinese authorities are equipped with the ability to recover deleted messages from social media app WeChat, a government organisation has inadvertently admitted - leading to speculation how, and the extent of government monitoring of online activity across the country.
The South China Morning Post reported that it had come across a social media post from a Chinese government watchdog making the revelation.
The post was penned by Chaohu Municipal Discipline Inspection and Supervision Commission, an anti-corruption watchdog based in eastern China.
During the weekend, the watchdog claimed that it had been able to retrieve deleted WeChat conversations sent by a suspect in a corruption investigation.
I finally understand why the US bans mobile phones that are made in China
"The Chaohu Municipal Discipline Inspection and Supervision Commission in March retrieved a series of deleted WeChat conversations from a suspect," it wrote online.
With these messages, the watchdog said it got suspects to admit to violating Party rules. As a result, 63 people were arrested and punished by the Commission.
The social media posting quickly went viral, and the organisation belatedly removed it. However, it provided a glimpse into the extent of the Chinese government's online surveillance abilities.
It is likely that the watchdog removed the post once it began to spark debate about Chinese data privacy rules.
One person was reported by the South China Morning Post to have written online: "Oh, I finally understand why the US bans mobile phones that are made in China."
This revelation will do a great job of raising awareness among the Chinese public who certainly have less freedom and privacy than many other citizens in the world
While people have hit back at the Chinese government for abusing citizen data, Tencent - the tech firm that created WeChat - has also faced criticism.
"WeChat does not store any chat histories - they are only stored on users' phones and computers," it claimed on Sunday.
Lee Munson, a security researcher for Comparitech, said it is hardly surprising that Chinese officials have the ability to access previously deleted messages.
"While it is unclear just how the deleted chats were accessed, this revelation will do a great job of raising awareness among the Chinese public who certainly have less freedom and privacy than many other citizens in the world," he said.
"Likewise, it may also help to highlight the danger in assuming that communications on any device are always totally secure, and go some way to helping people make informed decisions about the particular apps and services they use.
"It is unlikely, however, to dissuade Western governments from trying to gain access to conversations, both current and deleted, on WhatsApp and other popular platforms, so everyone would do well to keep an eye on their chat service of choice."
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