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China’s Biggest Food Delivery Apps Accused of Eavesdropping on Users’ Conversations

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Whether you meticulously sift through what information you allow websites to access about you or just shrug and click “accept all”, cookies have become an inevitable part of our internet experience. But in China, two of the country’s biggest takeout food apps stand accused of going one step further and not just tracking users’ browsing habits, but actually listening in on their conversations.

Guangdong-based publication IT Times has caused a major stir by publishing the results of what it claims to be a three month-long investigation into accusations that food delivery firms Meituan and Eleme were monitoring actual conversations of users and using speech recognition tools to then recommend certain restaurants.

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According to the paper, a resident in Shanghai complained late last year that after she mentioned a yearning for a certain brand of milk tea to a colleague, she was immediately hit with advertisements for said milk tea brand as soon as she opened the Eleme app. Similarly, a user based in Beijing supposedly told IT Times that they’d been recommended a raft of unadon-serving restaurants by their takeout app just minutes after vocalising a desire for the dish to a friend.

So are Chinese delivery app users being secretly listened to by their devices? Well, despite generating a whole host of eye-catching headlines, after three months of research IT Times admitted that the findings were not conclusive. However, they did say that it appeared that conversations about food items or restaurants taking place within “earshot” of devices with delivery apps running in the background would result in recommendations for related outlets “60-70% of the time”.

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If it all sounds a bit arbitrary, the reporters were careful to talk about restaurants and cuisine types they hadn’t previously ordered via the apps and to compare the results to test cases. In the case of Meituan at least, the report found it was more likely influenced by user searches in browsers, similar to how cookies work on most websites.

Eleme and Meituan have both issued strenuous denials when it comes to “listening in” on their users. Although both apps can request access to devices’ microphones, both companies have stated that this is solely for the purpose of users inputting voice commands and not for some Watergate-like mic tapping.

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China’s food delivery sector has exploded in recent years, with many apps now offering inner city delivery of meals in under 30 minutes. Such rapid growth has come at a cost, with some voicing concerns about hygiene standards and the environmental impact, but the IT Times report has sparked another debate.

Whether or not the allegations are unfounded, the story has reawakened conversations about data privacy in China. The country’s internet users are unlikely to be asked for their data preferences up front on apps, and campaigns to delete programs that encroach upon individuals’ privacy are largely unheard of, possibly as a result of living in a surveillance state.

But the IT Times story appears to have touched a nerve, with many users taking to social media to accuse other sites of going too far in tracking their search and browser activity and to moan about “intrusive” ads. The question is, will anyone listen to their complaints?

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.

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