US officials call TikTok a threat to national security. Here’s what you need to know

TikTok, the popular video app, is once again in the crosshairs of US officials, with a senior regulator and a group of lawmakers targeting national security concerns the Chinese service could pose.

Earlier this week, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican appointed during former President Donald Trump’s administration, revealed that he had asked Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores. The reason: The app collects user data that poses a risk to US national security.

“It’s not just an app to share funny videos or memes,” Carr’s letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai read. “That’s the sheep’s clothing.”

Google declined to comment. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Separately, nine Republican US senators, including Roy Blunt of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, sent a letter to TikTok expressing concern over a report that the company had given officials in Beijing “backdoor access” to data about its users.

The letters came in response to a BuzzFeed News report last month that China-based employees of TikTok’s parent company “have repeatedly accessed non-public data on U.S. TikTok users.” The report quoted leaked audio from internal company meetings, where engineers in China discussed they allegedly had access to U.S. data between September 2021 and January 2022.

TikTok said it is addressing concerns over access to U.S. user data and “will be happy to engage with lawmakers to set the record straight regarding BuzzFeed’s misleading reporting,” a TikTok spokesperson said.

“Like many international companies, TikTok has engineering teams around the world. We use access controls such as encryption and security monitoring to keep user data safe, and the access approval process is overseen by our US-based security team,” the company said in a statement. declaration. † “TikTok has consistently maintained that our engineers in locations outside the US, including China, can access US user data if necessary under those strict controls.”

The recent concerns mark the latest round of turbulence for TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance. In 2020, the app caught the attention of the Trump administration, who ordered ByteDance to divest TikTok, though that sale never materialized. The app is banned on many US government-issued devices.

National security agencies and lawmakers have long warned of the potential danger of allowing tech companies with ties to China to operate in the US. The US government has already banned the use of telecommunications equipment from Huawei and ZTE, both Chinese giants. It has also blocked Chinese telecommunications service providers from operating in the US over concerns they could be used by Beijing to monitor US citizens or conduct cyber warfare against the US.

Here are some of the main issues TikTok is raising in the US:

What are the concerns about the TikTok app?

Some US officials are concerned that TikTok threatens national security because parent company ByteDance could share data about Americans collected through the app with the Chinese government. That data, they fear, could be used as a weapon against Americans. In theory, China could use the data to build profiles and spy on individual users, track their activities and target them directly. Another concern is that the data in aggregate could be used to attack the US, such as using the data to create disinformation campaigns that could be used to destabilize the US government.

TikTok has repeatedly said it would never do this.

Is the threat real?

Probably not. The CIA concluded that Chinese intelligence agencies might be able to intercept TikTok data, according to a 2020 New York Times report, but there was no evidence they had done so.

What data does TikTok collect?

Like Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms, TikTok collects data about your location, IP address, search history, posts and what you look at and for how long. It also collects device IDs to track your interactions with advertisers. If you grant access, it can also collect your phone and social network contacts. It can also access all of your user-generated content through the app, including all those videos and images you post.

Like other social media services, TikTok uses this information to present content that keeps your attention on the app. Like other social media companies, TikTok relies on showing ads to make money, so it uses the data to refine ads, making them more valuable.

In its privacy policy, TikTok says it does not sell user data. But the company says it “may send your data to its servers or data centers outside of the United States for storage and/or processing.” The company also states that third parties it shares data with may also be located outside of the US.

Has TikTok tried to reassure Americans that China is not using its data to spy on them?

In a blog post dated June 17, TikTok said they already have US-based user data in Oracle’s cloud service† Previously, TikTok kept US user data in the US, but it kept a backup in Singapore. The company added that it plans to eventually remove US users’ private data from its own data centers.

“We know we are one of the most researched platforms from a security perspective,” Albert Calamug, who works on US security policy for TikTok, wrote in the blog post. “We strive to remove any doubt about the security of US user data.”

In May, TikTok also said it had created a new division with US-based leadership to provide a “greater level of focus and governance” on US data security.

What authority does the FCC have over apps and app stores?

No. The FCC regulates communications networks, including wired networks that use telecommunications and cable infrastructure, as well as networks that use wireless spectrum. This includes radio, television, satellite and mobile services.

The agency does not regulate the internet or other companies that operate on the internet, meaning it does not have the power to compel companies like Apple or Google to do anything, such as ban an app from their platforms.