A leading FCC commissioner calls Chinese-owed TikTok an “unacceptable national security risk” and is ordering both Google and Apple to remove it from their app stores, and the clock is ticking on his July 8 deadline.
The whimsical video app TikTok has been in the U.S. government’s crosshairs before. Then-President Trump tried to ban it in the summer of 2020, and for once, he had a point. Any large Chinese company, in tech or any other field, does work closely with the Chinese government with a (hopefully metaphorical) gun at their head. At one point in 2020 it looked like TikTok would be forced to sell off their U.S. operations because of this, and Twitter was a leading candidate to buy them. They worked out a compromise deal where Oracle got to claim TikTok was theirs.
Shortly thereafter, a federal judge undid the undoing of Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat, and TikTok remained under its Chinese owners ByteDance. The issue faded from the headlines. But now it’s back in a big way.
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. pic.twitter.com/Le01fBpNjn
— Brendan Carr (@BrendanCarrFCC) June 28, 2022
The San Francisco Business Times reports that a leader of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) called on Apple and Google to pull TikTok from their respective app stores. FCC commissioner Brendan Carr called the app an “unacceptable national security risk” and said “At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data,” in the letter seen above.
Numerous provisions of Apple’s & Google’s policies are relevant to TikTok's pattern of surreptitious data harvesting—a pattern that runs contrary to its public representations.
And there’s plenty of precedent for holding TikTok accountable by booting it from these app stores. pic.twitter.com/QH1w4ERDdb
— Brendan Carr (@BrendanCarrFCC) June 29, 2022
Tiktok’s pattern of misrepresentations coupled with its ownership by an entity beholden to the [Chinese Communist Party] has resulted in U.S. military branches and national security agencies banning it from government devices,” Carr points out.
TikTok responded to CNBC saying, “Like many global companies, TikTok has engineering teams around the world. We employ access controls like encryption and security monitoring to secure user data, and the access approval process is overseen by our US-based security team. TikTok has consistently maintained that our engineers in locations outside of the US, including China, can be granted access to U.S. user data on an as-needed basis under those strict controls.”
An “as-needed basis.” I don’t mind pointing out, could mean anything.
BuzzFeed exposed exactly that with their exposé on TikTok’s personal data surveillance of U.S. users last week. In response, the very same day that BuzzFeed published the exposé, TikTok announced they were keeping all U.S. data on Oracle servers in the U.S. But do we really trust Oracle, or their founder and former CEO Larry Ellison, who is still CTO and the largest shareholder? Ellison is a huge Trumper and accused yachting cheater.
Carr has now demanded that Apple and Google pull TikTok by July 8, or else explain why they haven’t by that date. Yet it is unclear whether Carr has any authority here. He’s not the only FCC commissioner, he’s one of five. His demand is not an official FCC demand, he just sent a nasty letter. But his nasty letter sets off an interesting dance between an ambitious U.S. regulator, the Chinese government, and the two most powerful tech companies in the world.
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Image: Solen Feyissa via Unsplash