You have to assume that Twitter regrets giving up on Vine so soon — TikTok, which focuses on similar bite-sized videos, is one of the most popular apps in the world today with more than a billion monthly active users. That could be a problem, according to FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. In an open letter to Apple and Google, Carr calls TikTok a “serious national security threat” and asks that the companies remove it from their app stores. The statement doesn’t carry any legal authority, but it could be a sign that the tide is turning against TikTok.
The dispute traces back to agreements TikTok made with US regulators during the Trump administration. The then-president had a lot to say about TikTok, most of it involving the privacy impact of having a Chinese-owned app collecting so much user data. After threats to ban the app over concerns the Chinese government had access to its data, TikTok’s US arm pledged to keep US data away from the Chinese mothership.
It seems, however, that TikTok never followed through on that promise. Last week, Buzzfeed reported on a series of leaked recordings in which China-based TikTok employees talk about their access to American user data. It is this report that Carr cites as the rationale for dropping the app from the Play Store and App Store.
In the recordings, the employees are mostly discussing “Project Texas,” which is the initiative to segregate US data in an Oracle data center (in Texas, obviously). TikTok says it does not keep any US data in China, but the recordings prove that Chinese employees still have access to that data, which seems to run afoul of the promises made to regulators. Carr, one of two Republican members of the Federal Communications Commission, notes that TikTok is known to collect clipboard data, draft messages, device identifiers, and keystroke patterns.
TikTok is not just another video app.
That’s the sheep’s clothing.
It harvests swaths of sensitive data that new reports show are being accessed in Beijing.
I’ve called on @Apple & @Google to remove TikTok from their app stores for its pattern of surreptitious data practices. pic.twitter.com/Le01fBpNjn
— Brendan Carr (@BrendanCarrFCC) June 28, 2022
While Carr is a Republican, distrust of Chinese tech giants is one of the few issues that crosses party lines. For example, Trump came down hard on Huawei for its alleged ties to the Chinese government, and the Biden administration has not sought to ease those restrictions. If Carr is coming out strongly against TikTok, it may only be a matter of time before Google and Apple are forced to act.
TikTok has not made any new statements on this latest twist. Previously, it sidestepped discussing the core of the Buzzfeed report with a non-denial denial. The secrecy is not working in its favor if a member of the FCC has resorted to public saber-rattling. In the event of a ban, Android users could still sideload the app (at increased security risk), but iPhone folks would be out of luck. If the US went as far as to block access to the service, you’d need a VPN to get your TikTok dance fix.