Senior Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr is calling on app stores to confront TikTok over national security concerns.
The Trump administration first proposed a ban on TikTok in 2020, also due to national security concerns. It was allowed to stay on the condition that it change hands from its current China-based property, ByteDance. The problem eventually ended with the change of presidency in 2021, with the Biden government lifting the ban on TikTok and WeChat in June of that year. New reports from June 2022 have led to calls from Republican lawmakers to remove TikTok from app stores again, with a Beijing engineer claiming the service has a “master key” and can “see everything” when data is moved to China.
Disturbing new reports prompt FCC commissioner to reinstate TikTok ban
Although Carr was appointed by Trump in 2018, the call to ban TikTok from app stores isn’t just a random revival of old business by the FCC commissioner. It starts with mid-June leak of 80 internal audio recordings of TikTok gatherings that received relatively little mainstream media coverage, but included at least 14 statements from company employees showing that China’s social media app techs had backdoor access to all its users’ data for at least the September period 2021 to January 2022.
ByteDance engineers in China are not allowed to access user accounts or data unless they are first approved for specific cases by a US-based security team, something a company executive confirmed during an October 2021 Senate hearing. meetings paints a different picture, indicating that US personnel have repeatedly reached out to engineers in China for help monitoring data flows from US customers. The US personnel reportedly did this because they had neither the required permissions to do it nor the knowledge of how that particular system worked.
In a series of September 2021 TikTok meetings, a member of the Trust and Safety department indicated that “everything is seen” by Chinese engineers, and a person titled “Master Admin” in Beijing said they “can access everything. ” The internal recordings were leaked to reporters at Buzzfeed and accompanied by documents and screenshots confirming them.
The new information raised national security concerns as TikTok is widely believed to have siloed US users’ data, essentially rendering it inaccessible to China, except in certain specific reviewed and approved cases. China’s national security and data privacy laws essentially force any company operating within its borders to give the government full access to the data it processes. So it’s possible that users in the US, including members of the government and private organizations that handle sensitive data, may have had a false sense of security when communicating and posting through the platform.
This was precisely the theme of the national security concerns raised by the Trump administration that led to the TikTok and WeChat bans on app stores. Not only could government figures or business leaders be compromised, but the Chinese government could use its access to scrape the platform’s private data to build profiles and records of US citizens. While US data appears to have been available to Chinese employees, at least for some parts of the app’s history, TikTok claims it has never shared this type of information with the Chinese government.
Some Republican senators have also expressed concern that Beijing’s access and influence could be used to manipulate the algorithm that drives what TikTok users see in their personal feeds and ads, pushing content that aligns with political interests. of the Chinese government and potentially disrupt the elections.
Can App Stores Ban TikTok Over National Security Concerns?
So far, no mandatory or legal action has been taken; the FCC commissioner is calling on CEOs Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai to voluntarily remove TikTok from their app stores.
Republican members of Congress, however, are beginning to increase the pressure through other avenues. Nine senators wrote a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, outlining national security concerns and asking for answers to a dozen questions about the company’s level of access to US user data. A TikTok spokesperson said the company plans to respond to the letter.
The app stores have not yet commented on the issues raised by the FCC commissioner and the senators. While they may not respond to national security concerns without government prompting, TikTok could find itself in a bind with Apple and Google if a secret transfer of user data has taken place that violates platform policies.
Alex Lisle, CTO of Kryptowire, agrees with the FCC commissioner based on his company’s own internal testing of TikTok: “The FCC’s request to remove TikTok from Apple’s and Google’s app stores is a smart and strategic move. At Kryptowire, we identified and shared troubling concerns in the app in November 2019 when we put it through a series of standard cybersecurity tests. Since then, the app has exploded in popularity, so the risks to user data are likely astronomical at this point. When our team used the app to mimic its intended use more than three years ago, we discovered 117 different network connections to TikTok, half of which were not secure, meaning it would be impossible to guarantee data integrity. The findings showed that many of the connections were not encrypted – with connections so insecure, it’s impossible to guarantee the integrity of the data collected by the app… As concerns about personal privacy become more common, cheers we draw the FCC’s attention to this matter. We welcome an open discussion with brands like TikTok about how they can take a more proactive approach to protecting millions of user data and preventing risks from being present on a device, rather than responding to risks that are already active on a device.”
The FCC commissioners have no real power to directly regulate TikTok’s activity in app stores, and the controversy surrounding the app has (as happens with everything in American politics) become a partisan issue. Under the Biden administration, Democrats didn’t seem particularly concerned about the teen-targeted video app or potential national security concerns, and the agency is currently chaired by a 2-2 split Democrat and one vacant FCC. commissioner seat that the Biden administration has at least two more years to fill.