In August 2020, President Trump signed an executive order to ban the China-based apps TikTok and WeChat in the United States due to concerns about national security. And although the order never officially took effect due to various legal battles fighting it, President Biden reversed his predecessor’s action nine months later. However, according to a recent correspondence by FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, Trump’s hunch was right.
In a letter dated June 24, Carr implored Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, the CEOs of Apple and Google respectively, to view TikTok as a serious threat to American safety and take it down from their app stores. “TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface. It’s not just an app for sharing videos or funny memes,” he wrote Cook and Pichai. “That’s the sheep’s clothing. At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data.”
Carr pointed to a BuzzFeed News report which stated that Chinese employees of ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) were going through the data of their American user base in ways that are “out of compliance with the policies that both of your companies require every app to adhere to.”
Neither Apple nor Google have released any comments about TikTok or Carr’s recommendation. However, TikTok called the BuzzFeed News piece “misleading” and a misrepresentation of the facts.
“Like many global companies, TikTok has engineering teams around the world,” TikTok said. “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.”
Per CNN, Buzzfeed News issued a statement saying it “stands categorically behind our reporting that US user data was accessed by China-based TikTok employees far more frequently than previously known, and we’re glad that TikTok even confirmed this in its own statement.”
Also, shortly before the BuzzFeed exposé was released, TikTok announced it would delete all U.S. user data from anywhere not on American soil. Instead, the company said it would migrate it to Oracle Cloud and U.S.-housed data centers.
But Carr addressed this remark from the social media giant in his letter as well, and he had very little confidence in it. “TikTok has long claimed that its U.S. user data has been stored on servers in the U.S. and yet those representations provided no protection against the data being accessed from Beijing,” he wrote. “Indeed, TikTok’s statement that ‘100% of US user traffic is being routed to Oracle’ says nothing about where that data can be accessed from.”