Alipay’s New Password System Triggers Security Concerns

A week has gone by since Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial released its updated Alipay mobile app, but recent feedback from Chinese customers has shown that there is still some work to do.

Chinese media reports and several microblog writers raised concerns about the security measures of the updated app, The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday (July 15).

Alipay 9.0 has undergone some serious changes from its previous version, turning from a mobile wallet to what Ant Financial is calling a “super app.” The new version offers P2P payments, social messaging, merchant loyalty and many other features. Ant Financial explained that “through the Merchants tab, users can learn the locations of nearby restaurants and shops, get discounted coupons and settle payments at merchants’ e-shops via Alipay, as they can when shopping online.”

As the app interacts with more aspects of its users’ lives, it seems natural that customers should feel more protective of their data. However, what triggered the concerns was the new way of opening the app: a “gesture password,” also known as “pattern lock,” that requires users to recreate a specific pattern over the screen with their finger.

Jason Lu, vice president for fraud risk management at Ant Financial, said during an interview in Shanghai on Tuesday (July 14) that there was no need for a security step. He then continued to explain that the app is protected with a password, and consumers usually have password locks on their mobile phones. Lu used a metaphor to further illustrate his point: “It’s just like getting into your house. Why do you need a key for your front door and another for your bedroom? It’s just redundancy.”

However, Ant Financial has made it clear that customers’ concerns will not go unheard. “We are taking [such] feedback, and we are going to make improvements in our security measures to make sure when they open those sensitive areas we will have additional security,” said Lu, who mentioned fingerprint passwords as an example.

Alipay 9.0’s social-networking features are part of Ant Financial’s strategy to compete against Tencent’s messaging apps, WeChat and Mobile QQ, which also offer payment functions.

During a panel discussion in Shanghai on Tuesday, Hu Qilin, vice president of Tencent’s payment service Tenpay, hinted at the striking resemblance between the new Alipay app’s social features and WeChat. “I think Alipay’s 9.0, the latest version, it’s kind of similar to WeChat in terms of user interface design, the layout, even the font size,” said Hu.

Instead of denying the resemblance, Lu, who was also present during the panel, replied to Hu’s comment with humor: “Actually, Mr. Hu’s department and us, we have long had a romantic relationship in which we copy from each other.”

Lu then explained that it is good to learn from the competition. “If we can create value for users, and users accept it, if society can find value from the innovation or copying, I feel that it’s OK,” he added. “It’s through such innovation and learning from each other and this competitive environment that we can all improve.”

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