U.S. communications regulator wants TikTok removed from app stores over spying concerns
Former U.S. president tried to ban the company from operating in the U.S.
A commissioner with the U.S. communications regulator is asking Apple and Google to consider banning TikTok from their app stores over data security concerns related to the Chinese-owned company.
Brendan Carr, a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has written a letter to the CEOs of both companies, alerting them that the wildly popular video-sharing app does not comply with the requirements of their app store policies.
"TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface. It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or meme. That's the sheep's clothing," Carr said in the letter. "At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data."
"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."
TikTok is not just another video app.<br>That’s the sheep’s clothing.<br><br>It harvests swaths of sensitive data that new reports show are being accessed in Beijing.<br><br>I’ve called on <a href="https://twitter.com/Apple?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Apple</a> & <a href="https://twitter.com/Google?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Google</a> to remove TikTok from their app stores for its pattern of surreptitious data practices. <a href="https://t.co/Le01fBpNjn">pic.twitter.com/Le01fBpNjn</a>—@BrendanCarrFCC
In the letter, Carr lists multiple instances of the company running afoul of various privacy and data security laws around the world. He's asking Google and Apple to remove the ability to use the app on their phones.
If they refuse to do so by July 8, he's demanding a response from them explaining "the basis for your company's conclusion that the surreptitious access of private and sensitive U.S. user data by persons located in Beijing, coupled with TikTok's pattern of misleading representations and conduct, does not run afoul of any of your app store policies."
The letter comes after U.S. news outlet Buzzfeed reported last week that data on U.S. users has been repeatedly accessed by entities in mainland China. TikTok subsequently announced that it plans "to delete U.S. users' private data from our own data centres and fully pivot to Oracle cloud servers located in the U.S.," the company said.
China has 'unfettered access' to data
John Zabiuk, chair of the cybersecurity program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, says that move to domicile the servers in the U.S. may seem like an easy fix, but it doesn't address 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 the data gets stored in a lot of cases in mainland China where the government has unfettered access."
It is not the first time that the company has come under fire in the U.S. for its links to the Chinese government. Former U.S. president Donald Trump railed repeatedly against the company, going as far as trying to ban the company via executive order.
That led to talks between U.S. companies including Oracle, Microsoft and even Walmart about buying the company, but those talks fell apart 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 ongoing.
As recently as last week, six Republican senators asked the Treasury Department for an update on how that review is proceeding.
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, on national security concerns. And Australia is currently contemplating doing the same.
Zabiuk says it certainly looks like the app runs afoul of Google and Apple's own rules for apps because of the way it is built.
"They can make changes to the code and every time you launch the app … it may be doing different things," he said.
'It's part of my livelihood'
Despite those concerns, TikTok user Danielle Ryan says it would take a lot for her to stop using the app, since it has quickly evolved from a bit of silly fun into a full time job as a content creator.
"I started TikTok almost two years ago now, just as a joke really, then it very quickly escalated into something a lot 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 was only when she started making TikToks about growing her business that she found a growing and engaged audience of small business owners looking for help.
Now she runs a coaching service for small business owners, and she says she's "entirely dependent" on TikTok to find and serve her customers.
"Shifting would be like starting over again essentially," she said. "The growth potential for businesses is a lot different on TikTok versus any other social media app that currently exists."
Canada would likely follow U.S. ban: expert
TikTok isn't the only Chinese-controlled company that has faced criticism for its data security. Earlier this summer, Canada forbade Chinese telecom component maker Huawei from being installed on any 5G networks in Canada.
The rationale for that decision was the same as what's being cited in the case of TikTok: national security.
Government officials allege that because of its links to the Chinese regime, giving Huawei access to sensitive communications networks in Canada poses a security risk.
Zabiuk says if the U.S. moves to ban TikTok, Canada likely follow suit.
"It's a hugely popular app and it would make a lot of people upset [but] if we look at the architecture and the way it works, it is an extremely dangerous application," he said.
CBC reached out to the Ministry of Canadian Heritage, which governs telecom regulator the CRTC, and to Canadian representatives of TikTok for comment. Those inquiries were not returned.