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FCC Commissioner calls on Apple and Google to block TikTok

By | Published on Thursday 30 June 2022


One of the commissioners at US media regulator the Federal Communications Commission has raised new concerns about the Chinese government having access to user data on the China-owned TikTok platform, calling on Apple and Google to remove the TikTok app from their respective app stores.

Back in 2020, then US President Donald Trump sought to ban the use of TikTok within America, citing the same concerns as those expressed in FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr’s new letter.

Although some saw Trump’s TikTok ban as simply part of his pre-election anti-China rhetoric, similar concerns had been expressed by both Democrat and Republican politicians. Nevertheless, once elected, Joe Biden called off the ban. However, he insisted that the US government would still investigate all the concerns raised about TikTok “through rigorous, evidence-based analysis” and would “address any unacceptable or undue risk”.

Trump’s ban had already been subject to legal challenges, with lawyers arguing that the President didn’t have to power to instigate such a ban via an executive order. Meanwhile, TikTok owner Bytedance sought to allay the US government’s fears by insisting data linked to American users was not stored in China. It also dabbled with selling its US-based business – or at least bringing in US-based co-owners, in particular Oracle, who would provide assurances to concerned politicians.

Carr – who was appointed to the committee of FCC commissioners by Trump in 2017 – was prompted to write to Apple and Google about TikTok following a new report by BuzzFeed which alleges that Bytedance bosses in China do have access to US user data.

Outlining the key allegations in that report, Carr writes in his letter: “Through leaked audio recordings, last week’s BuzzFeed News report revealed that ByteDance officials in Beijing have repeatedly accessed the sensitive data that TikTok has collected from Americans after those US users downloaded the app through your app stores. ‘Everything is seen in China’, a TikTok official said in the recordings, despite the fact that TikTok has repeatedly represented that the data it gathers about Americans is stored in the United States”.

Carr also notes but dismisses TikTok’s most recent statement regarding the storage of US user data.

“TikTok’s recent statement that it is moving US user data to Oracle servers located in the US does not address the concerns raised here”, he says. “TikTok has long claimed that its US user data has been stored on servers in the US and yet those representations provided no protection against the data being accessed from Beijing. 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”.

The letter also lists various companies and government agencies that have sought to restrict the use of TikTok by their employees over data concerns.

Then ramping up the drama somewhat, Carr says: “TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface. It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or memes. 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. Indeed, TikTok collects everything from search and browsing histories to keystroke patterns and biometric identifiers, including faceprints – which researchers have said might be used in unrelated facial recognition technology – and voiceprints”.

“It collects location data as well as draft messages and metadata, plus it has collected the text, images, and videos that are stored on a device’s clipboard”, he goes on. “The list of personal and sensitive data it collects goes on from there. This should come as no surprise, however. Within its own borders, the People’s Republic Of China has developed some of the most invasive and omnipresent surveillance capabilities in the world to maintain authoritarian control”.

Addressing Apple boss Tim Cook and Google chief Sundar Pichai, Carr says: “I am writing the two of you because Apple and Google hold themselves out as operating app stores that are safe and trusted places to discover and download apps … It is clear that TikTok poses an unacceptable national security risk due to its extensive data harvesting being combined with Beijing’s apparently unchecked access to that sensitive data … Therefore, I am requesting that you apply the plain text of your app store policies to TikTok and remove it from your app stores for failure to abide by those terms”.

Although it hasn’t responded directly to Carr’s letter, TikTok has issued a statement regarding the allegations in the BuzzFeed report.

It said: “We 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. 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 US user data on an as-needed basis under those strict controls”, the firm’s spokesperson continued. “Recent reporting by BuzzFeed shows that TikTok is doing exactly what it said it would: addressing concerns around access to US user data by employees outside the US”.

“We’ve been clear and vocal about our work in this area as we seek to address both location and access to data”, they concluded. “We’re pleased that we now route 100% of US user traffic to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, and we are continuing to work on additional safeguards on US data for improved peace of mind for our community”.

This story is discussed on this edition of our Setlist podcast.