Earlier this month, BuzzFeed News obtained audio showing that Chinese employees of ByteDance, the Beijing-based company behind TikTok, have “repeatedly accessed nonpublic data” from American users. Referring to the report, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr called on Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and Apple CEO Tim Cook to nix the app from its platforms.
“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,” Carr wrote to the executives. “But it is also clear that TikTok’s pattern of conduct … puts it out of compliance with the policies that both of your companies require every app to adhere to as a condition of remaining available on your app stores.”
“TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface,” Carr added. “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.”
Former President Donald Trump considered banning TikTok in 2020, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Americans should download the app “only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” Carr — a Trump appointee — affirmed that Tiktok “collects everything from search and browsing histories to keystone patterns and biometric identifiers, including faceprints.”
“The list of personal and sensitive data it collects goes on from there,” Carr continued. “This should come as no surprise, however. Within its own borders, the PRC has developed some of the most invasive and omnipresent surveillance capabilities in the world to maintain authoritarian control.”
Indeed, the Chinese government uses video surveillance, tracks messaging accounts, and leverages other forms of personal data to promote the goal of “police informatization,” according to the Brookings Institution. Among other capabilities, officials are able to combine facial recognition data from video systems with geographic information, then send the data to “societal resource integration platforms” in places like Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is detaining members of the Uyghur ethnic group.
Biden’s order directed the federal government to “evaluate these threats through rigorous, evidence-based analysis and should address any unacceptable or undue risks consistent with overall national security, foreign policy, and economic objectives, including the preservation and demonstration of America’s core values and fundamental freedoms.”
“By operating on United States information and communications technology devices, including personal electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers, connected software applications can access and capture vast swaths of information from users, including United States persons’ personal information and proprietary business information,” the order said. “Foreign adversary access to large repositories of United States persons’ data also presents a significant risk.”