Google and Apple should remove TikTok from their app store, FCC commissioner says

A federal official issued a new warning to Apple and Google, urging the tech giants to remove China-based app TikTok from their app stores. In a letter addressed to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr cited a new report from Buzzfeed News about the “serious national security threats posed by TikTok.”

The report, which analyzed leaked audio from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings, found nonpublic data about U.S. TikTok users had been accessed by employees of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance. In 2021, TikTok executive Michael Beckerman testified before Congress that “TikTok actually collects less data than many of our peers.”

However, the BuzzFeed report found ByteDance employees in Beijing have repeatedly accessed sensitive data that TikTok has collected from Americans who download the app, which allows users to create, share and react to short videos.

“Everything is seen in China,” a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department said in a September meeting, according to BuzzFeed.

Carr cannot force either Apple or Google to remove the free app from their stores, but said “Apple and Google hold themselves out as operating app stores that are safe and trusted places to download apps.” Statistics show the app has been download from these two app stores 19 million times in the first quarter of 2022 alone, Carr said.

“It is clear that TikTok poses an unacceptable national security risk due to its extensive data being combined with Beijing’s apparently unchecked access to that data,” he said. TikTok’s “pattern of conduct and misrepresentations regarding the unfettered access that persons in Beijing have to sensitive U.S. user data” puts the social media platform out of compliance with Apple and Google’s policies.

President Donald Trump tried to ban the app with an executive order, which was immediately challenged in court. President Joe Biden replaced the failed ban with a new executive order in June 2021, calling for a government review of foreign-owned apps and whether they pose any security risks.

The Biden administration singled out China as an example of a country that does “not share these values and seek to leverage digital technologies and Americans’ data in ways that present unacceptable national security risks while advancing authoritarian controls and interests.”

Other lawmakers have also pushed to hold TikTok accountable. After BuzzFeed report was released, Republican Sens. Roger Wicker and Tom Cotton wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen asking why the Biden administration has had a delayed response in investigating “the national security and privacy risks posed by TikTok.” Four other Republican lawmakers signed on to the letter.

Wicker also joined Sen. Marsha Blackburn and others in a second letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew on Monday, citing the BuzzFeed report and Beckerman’s previous testimony. 

“We are very concerned that, in light of these reports, TikTok’s representative did not provide truthful answers to the Senate Commerce Committee at its subcommittee hearing,” the letter reads. “It appears TikTok is now taking steps to deflect from its knowing misrepresentation by changing the way in which ‘protected; data can be accessed by employees.”

The group posed several questions to the TikTok CEO including, “Is it true that TikTok employees located in China currently have, or had in the past, access to U.S. data?” as well as question about the app’s algorithm and involvement of the Chinese government. 

Earlier this year, state attorneys general launched a nationwide investigation into TikTok and its possible harmful effects on young users’ mental health, widening government scrutiny of the wildly popular video platform. The investigation by a number of states and led by California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont.

In response to the BuzzFeed report and queries from lawmakers, a TikTok spokesperson said the company “is doing exactly what it said it would: addressing concerns around access to U.S. user data by employees outside the U.S.”

“We’ve been clear and vocal about our work in this area as we seek to address both location and access to data. We’re pleased that we now route 100% of U.S. user traffic to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, and we are continuing to work on additional safeguards on U.S. data for improved peace of mind for our community,” the statement reads.

The TikTok spokesperson also said the company would “gladly engage with lawmakers to set the record straight regarding BuzzFeed’s misleading reporting,” and that it “has consistently maintained that our engineers in locations outside of the U.S., including China, can be granted access to U.S. user data on an as-needed basis under those strict controls.”

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