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A Federal Communications commissioner is urging Apple and Alphabet to remove TikTok from the companies’ app stores. According to a letter addressed to the chief executives of the companies, FCC commissioner Brendan Carr said TikTok poses an “unacceptable security risk” because it mines extensive user data, which is being accessed by employees in China.
“TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance — an organization that is beholden to the Communist Party of China and required by the Chinese law to comply with PRC’s surveillance demands,” reads the letter sent on Tuesday.
TikTok has run into problems with the government over its parent company’s ties to China. In 2020, former President Donald Trump issued an executive order demanding ByteDance to divest ownership of the app. He threatened to shut down the company’s operations in the U.S. if the company refused to comply (the order was blocked by a federal court). Scrutiny of TikTok quieted when President Joe Biden took office, but the company continued to run into legal trouble. TikTok in 2021 agreed to pay $92 million to settle lawsuits alleging that the app clandestinely transferred to servers in China vast quantities of user data on children that could be weaponized to track the activities of users.
TikTok has denied ever sharing user data with the Chinese government.
In response to concerns that the Chinese government is weaponizing user data, TikTok announced in June that its U.S. user traffic is now being routed to Oracle servers based in the country. The move was made after BuzzFeed News reported that Beijing-based employees of ByteDance had repeatedly accessed private data on U.S. users.
Carr, however, said that moving servers isn’t enough.
“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,” the letter reads. “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.”
According to the Republican FCC commissioner, TikTok violates policies dictating the app stores of Apple and Google covering user data. He cites Apple’s guidelines stating that an app developer “must provide access to information about how and where the data [of an individual] will be used” and “data collected from apps may only be shared with third parties to improve the app or serve advertising.” Of Google’s app store, Carr argues that TikTok violated rules requiring developers to disclose an app’s access, collection, use and sharing of data.
TikTok said in a statement that it will “gladly engage with lawmakers to set the record straight regarding BuzzFeed‘s misleading reporting.”
“Like many global companies, TikTok has engineering teams around the world,” reads the statement. “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.”
TikTok has skyrocketed in use during the pandemic to more than 1 billion active users. It was downloaded more than 19 million times in the first quarter of 2022.
Apple and Alphabet did not respond to requests for comment.
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