The Commissioner of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has called for Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores over fears that sensitive user data from the app is being viewed by officials in China.
Commissioner Brendan Carr published an open letter addressed to Apple and Google CEOs Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai saying it was “clear that TikTok poses an unacceptable national security risk".
“TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface,” he wrote. “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.”
Carr cited a recent Buzzfeed article which said leaked recordings from meetings at ByteDance – the Chinese company that owns TikTok – proved China-based staff from the company had access to private data about its US users.
“Everything is seen in China,” said one TikTok staffer, according to Buzzfeed.
The revelations sparked outrage from senators in the US who demanded TikTok explain whether data about its citizens were accessible in China.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew responded in detail to the senators’ questions but did say that TikTok staff in China “can have access to TikTok US user data subject to a series of robust cybersecurity controls” and authorisation processes.
In response to a question about whether TikTok would provide US data to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chew said the company has "not been asked for such data”.
“We have not provided US user data to the CCP, nor would we if asked,” he clarified.
TikTok’s Chinese ownership was a point of contention during the Trump administration when the former president signed executive orders to ban TikTok and WeChat during an escalating technology trade stoush with China.
TikTok is not just another video app.— Brendan Carr (@BrendanCarrFCC) June 28, 2022
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
While the bans didn't stick, they highlighted so-called ‘national security’ concerns about an app from a Chinese-owned company being so popular among young people – an issue that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had reportedly brought up in his lobbying efforts with politicians and regulators in Washington.
Australian Liberal senator James Paterson has imported the latest worries over TikTok with a letter to its local general manager, Lee Hunter, asking for clarification about whether user data is accessible by TikTok or ByteDance employees in China and if that data has been previously accessed.
More than 7 million Australians use TikTok.
“On what basis could [TikTok or ByteDance employees] refuse a request from the Chinese government under the National Security Law for access to that Australian user data?” Senator Paterson asked.
During an parliamentary committee hearing at the height of TikTok fears in 2020, the company’s CISO Roland Cloutier told Australian politicians that no information about Australian citizens were held in China.
“The information is resident in the United States and a backup in Singapore … That information is protected with significant levels of protection and encryption.
“It’s protected with access and identity management solutions that are in our hosting environment, our enterprise environment.”
But those data housing agreements have come under question with audio recordings heard by Buzzfeed showing there may be some wiggle room for data to flow to Beijing from the US.
Data flow fears go both ways, however, as China recently banned Tesla vehicles from a part of the country that is host to Communist Party retreats for fear that sensors on the cars, which include cameras, could leak sensitive information about the party’s meetings.