Re-igniting an issue that became a signature of the Trump administration, senior Republican FCC commissioner Brendan Carr is calling for app stores to give TikTok the boot over national security concerns.
The Trump administration first proposed a ban of TikTok in 2020, also due to national security concerns. It was allowed to remain under the condition that it changed hands from its current China-based ownership, ByteDance. The issue ended up dying down due to the change in presidency in 2021, with the Biden administration lifting the bans on TikTok and WeChat in June of that year. New reports from June of 2022 have sparked calls from Republican lawmakers to once again remove TikTok from app stores, with an engineer based in Beijing allegedly claiming that the service has a “master key” and can “see everything” when data moves to China.
Troubling new reports prompt FCC commissioner to take up TikTok ban once again
Though Carr was appointed by Trump in 2018, the call for banning TikTok from app stores is not just a random revival of old business by the FCC commissioner. It originates with a mid-June leak of 80 internal audio recordings of TikTok meetings that received relatively little mainstream media coverage, but contain at least 14 statements from company employees indicating that the social media app’s engineers in China had backdoor access to the data of all of its users for at least the period of September 2021 to January 2022.
ByteDance engineers in China are not supposed to have access to user accounts or data unless they are first cleared for specific cases by a US-based security team, something that a company executive attested to in an October 2021 Senate hearing. The audio of the internal meetings paints a different picture, indicating that the US staff has repeatedly reached out to engineers in China for help with monitoring data flows of US customers. The US staff 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 with the title of “Master Admin” based in Beijing said that they have “access to everything.” The internal recordings were leaked to reporters at Buzzfeed and accompanied by documents and screenshots that corroborate them.
The new information raised national security concerns as it has been widely believed for some time that TikTok has siloed the data of US users and made it essentially 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 allow the government total access to the data it handles. It is thus possible that users in the US, including members of government and private organizations that handle sensitive data, may have had a false sense of security in communicating and posting via the platform.
This was the exact theme of the national security concerns raised by the Trump administration that led to the TikTok and WeChat bans from app stores. Not just that government figures or corporate executives might be compromised, but that the Chinese government might use its access to scrape the private data of the platform to compile profiles and dossiers of US citizens. While US data appears to have been available to Chinese staff at least for some portions of the app’s history, TikTok maintains that it has never shared this sort of information with the Chinese government.
Some Republican senators have also raised concerns about the possibility of Beijing’s access and influence being used to manipulate the algorithm that drives what TikTok users see in their personal feeds and advertisements, pushing content that aligns with the Chinese government’s political interests and potentially interferes with elections.
Could app stores ban TikTok over national security concerns?
Thus far no compulsory or legal action is being taken; the FCC commissioner is making a direct appeal to CEOs Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai to remove TikTok from their app stores voluntarily.
Republican members of Congress are beginning to turn up the pressure via other avenues, however. Nine senators penned a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew articulating the national security concerns and asking for answers to about a dozen questions about the company’s level of access to US user data. A spokesperson for TikTok said that the company plans to respond to the letter.
The app stores have yet to comment on the issues raised by the FCC commissioner and the senators. Though they may not respond to national security concerns without government prompting, TikTok could find itself in hot water with Apple and Google if undisclosed transfer of user data that violates platform policies has occurred.
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 and Google app stores is a smart and strategic move. At Kryptowire, we identified and shared troubling concerns in the app in November of 2019 when we put it through a series of standard cybersecurity tests. Since then, the app has skyrocketed in popularity so the risks to user data at this point are likely astronomical. When our team operated the app to mimic intended use over three years ago, we detected 117 different network connections to TikTok, half of which were not secure, meaning it would be impossible to guarantee integrity of the data. The findings proved that many of the connections weren’t encrypted – with connections this unsecure it’s impossible to guarantee integrity of data collected by the app … As personal privacy concerns continue to be more prevalent, we applaud 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’s data and prevent risks from being present on a device rather than reacting to risks already active on a device.”
The FCC commissioners do not have any real power to directly regulate TikTok’s activity on app stores, and the controversy surrounding the app has (as tends to happen with everything in American politics) become a partisan issue. Under the Biden administration, Democrats have not appeared particularly concerned with the teen-focused video app or the potential national security concerns, and the agency is currently chaired by a Democrat with a 2-2 party split and one vacant FCC commissioner seat that the Biden administration will have at least two more years to fill.