Brendan Carr, one of the commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission, is urging U.S. big tech companies to ban the popular Chinese app, TikTok, from their app stores due to data security concerns.
Carr made his case in a letter addressed to Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai. Carr shared a copy of his letter in a tweet, stating, “TikTok is not just another video app. That’s the sheep’s clothing. It harvests swaths of sensitive data that new reports show are being accessed in Beijing. I’ve called on @Apple & @Google to remove TikTok from their app stores for its pattern of surreptitious data practices.”
TikTok, a popular app for creating short, looping videos, is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based internet company. Since it debuted in China under the name “Douyin” in 2016, TikTok has experienced phenomenal growth globally. It claims more than 1 billion users worldwide and is especially popular among young people aged 16-24. In the United States, the app is used by about 80 million Americans every month.
TikTok collects an enormous amount of data on its users, including IP addresses, browsing history, and biometric information. According to China’s national intelligence law, all Chinese tech companies must turn over any data they collect if the government demands it. Researchers have raised serious privacy and data security concerns about TikTok for years.
ByteDance claims that U.S. user data is safe because it is stored on U.S. soil, with a backup center in Singapore. ByteDance argues its data centers’ location ensures that neither the company’s Chinese employees nor the Chinese government have access to U.S. user data.
China Sees Everything
But a recent BuzzFeed News report, based on leaked internal TikTok meetings, shows that ByteDance’s Chinese employees have repeatedly accessed nonpublic U.S. user data. One employee of TikTok’s trust and safety department said in a September 2021 meeting that “Everything is seen in China.”
In another leaked phone call, a TikTok director referred to one Beijing-based engineer as a “master admin” who “has access to everything.” Meanwhile, TikTok’s U.S. staff “did not have permission or knowledge of how to access the data on their own.” BuzzFeed points to these leaked phone calls as evidence that ByteDance “may have misled lawmakers, its users, and the public by downplaying that data stored in the US could still be accessed by employees in China.”
In his letter to Apple and Google, Carr referred to the BuzzFeed report as the latest evidence that TikTok “is not what it appears to be on the surface..” Carr stated that TikTok “poses an unacceptable national security risk” due to its data harvesting and Beijing’s “unchecked access” to that data. One analyst has warned that the information TikTok collects today might assist China’s intelligence agencies in blackmailing Americans in the future.
App’s Invasive Mining of Personal Information
Besides the BuzzFeed report, Carr gave a list of TikTok’s other concerning data practices. For example, in 2019, TikTok paid a $5.7 million fine to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for illegally “collecting and exposing locations of young children, as well as failing to delete information on underage children when instructed to do so.”
In 2020, TikTok reportedly took advantage of an iPhone system loophole, enabling the app to access user data, including passwords and cryptocurrency wallet addresses. A year later, TikTok agreed to pay $92 million to settle a lawsuit alleging the app had transferred a “vast quantity of private and personally identifiable user data” to China.
Carr said these examples were evidence that TikTok’s pattern of conduct and misrepresentation “put it out of compliance” with Apple and Google app stores’ policies that are supposed to protect consumer privacy and safeguard their data. Therefore, he requested both Apple and Google remove TikTok from their app stores. If the companies reject his request, Carr asked them to provide explanations by July 8.
Even More Concerns
Carr’s letter was powerful, but it didn’t go far enough. Carr only addressed the data security and privacy concerns, but researchers and human rights activists have voiced other concerns about TikTok and its parent company ByteDance for years.
TikTok has applied Beijing’s censorship to non-Chinese citizens. For instance, TikTok deleted the account of Feroza Aziz, an American TikTok star, after she posted a video criticizing Beijing’s mass internment of Uyghur Muslims. Only after media outcry did TikTok reinstate Aziz’s account. ByteDance has reportedly played an active role in condoning the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in China by collaborating “with public security bureaus across China.”
An investigative report by The Wall Street Journal found that TikTok has one of the most powerful algorithms among all social media companies. Some researchers have worried that Beijing would utilize such powerful algorithms to spread its propaganda, influence Americans’ thinking, and shape public opinion in the United States.
Ben Thompson, a Taiwan-based analyst, warned, “How much of a leap is it to think that a Party committed to ideological dominance will forever leave a route directly into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans untouched?” An example he gave is that “TikTok could promote a particular candidate or a particular issue in a particular geography, without anyone — except perhaps the candidate, now indebted to a Chinese company — knowing.”
We have already witnessed how TikTok tried to influence public opinion this year. The app was full of videos supporting Russia’s narrative after Russia invaded Ukraine. Given China and Russia’s alliance, such a Chinese and Russia propaganda campaign through a Chinese app shouldn’t be a surprise.
Many Institutions Ban TikTok
Given all these concerns about TikTok, Carr’s request of Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores is reasonable and not unprecedented. In 2020, India banned more than 100 Chinese apps, including TikTok, claiming these Chinese apps were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting user data in an unauthorized manner.”
Multiple U.S. military branches barred members from downloading the app onto their government-issued smartphones and tablets. Some private businesses, such as Wells Fargo, also blocked their employees from downloading the app onto their company-issued devices.
Former President Trump threatened to ban TikTok in the United States through an executive order, which compelled ByteDance to start negotiating with American companies, including Microsoft and Oracle, about the possibility of divesting some of TikTok’s U.S. operations. However, shortly after President Joe Biden came into office, he revoked Trump’s order, and ByteDance quickly shelved its U.S. operation’s divesting plan.
Biden Administration’s Wrong Approach
Ignoring the various risks TikTok poses, the Biden administration has chosen to court top TikTok influencers to win support for the administration’s policies. The administration invited a TikTok influencer to the White House to convince younger Americans to get vaccinated, worked with top TikTok influencers to promote Biden’s infrastructure plan last year, and briefed top influencers on the war in Ukraine this year.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, RT America, a Russian state-sponsored network, ceased operation after being banned by major U.S. distributors. American people ought to ask the Biden administration and our big tech companies: if we don’t think the Russian propaganda machine should operate in the United States, why should we let the Chinese government’s propaganda tool operate unrestrictedly here?
Apple and Google should comply with Carr’s request and remove TikTok from their app store immediately. As for the Biden administration, rather than courting TikTok influencers, it should make ByteDance divest TikTok’s U.S. operation to an American company right away. If ByteDance refuses, the administration must ban TikTok from operating in the U.S.
As analyst Thompson wrote, “If China is on the offensive against liberalism not only within its borders but within ours, it is in liberalism’s interest to cut off a vector that has taken root precisely because it is so brilliantly engineered to give humans exactly what they want.”