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US communications regulator wants TikTok removed from app stores over espionage concerns

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A commissioner at the US communications regulator asks Apple and Google to consider banning TikTok from their app stores over data security concerns linked to the Chinese company.

Brendan Carr, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has written a letter to the CEOs of both companies warning them that the wildly popular video-sharing app is not meeting the requirements of their app store policies.

“TikTok is not what it seems at first glance. It is not just an app to share funny videos or meme. That is the sheep’s clothing,” Carr said in the letter. “At its core, TikTok functions as an advanced monitoring tool that collects large amounts of personal and sensitive data.”

“Clearly, TikTok poses an unacceptable national security risk because its extensive data collection is combined with Beijing’s seemingly uncontrolled access to that sensitive data.”

In the letter, Carr lists multiple instances of the company violating various privacy and data security laws around the world. He asks Google and Apple to remove the ability to use the app on their phones.

If they decline by July 8, he demands a response explaining “the basis for your company’s conclusion that the covert access to private and sensitive U.S. user data by individuals located in Beijing, coupled with TikTok’s pattern of deceptive representations and behavior does not violate your app store policy.”

The letter comes after US news outlet Buzzfeed reported last week that data on US users had been repeatedly accessed by entities in mainland China. TikTok then announced that it plans to “remove US users’ private data from our own data centers and run it entirely to Oracle cloud servers in the US,” the company said.

China has ‘unlimited access’ to data

John Zabiuk, chairman of the cybersecurity program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, says moving to the servers in the US may seem like an easy solution, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

“The problem is who still has access to that data? It’s still TikTok,” he told CBC in an interview, noting that if the company has access to the data, it’s safe to assume the Chinese government does too.

“It captures so much personal information about users, and in many cases the data is stored in mainland China, where the government has unrestricted access.”

It is not the first time the company has come under fire in the US for its ties to the Chinese government. Former US President Donald Trump has repeatedly railed against the company, even going so far as to try to ban the company via executive order.

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The China-based company ByteDance wants to make a deal with Oracle and Walmart, but the arrangement may not meet what US President Donald Trump demanded of the company.

That sparked talks between US companies including Oracle, Microsoft and even Walmart about buying the company, but those talks dispersed after legal challenges, and then the plan was shelved by the incoming Biden administration, which ordered a national security review of the app, which is underway.

Just last week, six Republican senators asked the Treasury Department for an update on how that review is progressing.

If the push is successful, it won’t even be the first time TikTok has been banned from a country. India banned the app in 2020 due to national security concerns. And Australia is currently considering doing the same.

Zabiuk says it certainly looks like the app violates Google and Apple’s own rules for apps because of the way it’s built.

“They can change the code and every time you launch the app… it can do different things,” he said.

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Vancouver-based content producer Danielle Ryan says TikTok has helped her business grow by leaps and bounds in ways that wouldn’t be possible on other platforms.

‘It’s part of my livelihood’

Despite those concerns, TikTok user Danielle Ryan says it will cost her a lot to stop using the app, as it has quickly evolved from a bit of crazy fun to a full-time content creator job.

“I started TikTok almost two years ago now, basically as a joke, then it escalated very quickly into something much bigger, and now it’s part of my livelihood,” Ryan told CBC News in an interview.

Ryan, who lives in Vancouver, used other social media channels to promote previous businesses, including a yoga studio, but never managed to expand her reach beyond a certain threshold.

It wasn’t until she started making TikToks about growing her business that she found a growing and engaged audience of small business owners seeking help.

Now she runs a coaching service for small business owners, saying she is “completely dependent” on TikTok to find and serve her customers.

“Shifting would essentially be like starting over,” she said. “The growth potential for businesses is very different on TikTok than on any other social media app currently in existence.”

Canada likely to follow US ban: expert

TikTok is not the only China-controlled company to have come under criticism for its data security. Earlier this summer, Canada banned Chinese telecom component manufacturer Huawei from being installed on 5G networks in Canada.

The rationale for that decision was the same as what is cited in the case of TikTok: national security.

Government officials claim that it poses a security risk if Huawei gains access to sensitive communications networks in Canada because of its ties to the Chinese regime.

Zabiuk says that if the US wants to ban TikTok, Canada will likely follow.

“It’s a hugely popular app and it would upset a lot of people [but] if we look at the architecture and the way it works, it’s an extremely dangerous application,” he said.

CBC reached out to the Department of Canadian Heritage, which controls telecoms regulator CRTC, and Canadian representatives from TikTok for comment. Those questions have not been answered.

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