Letter Follows Leak About “Backdoor to Access User Data”
TikTok’s growth in the American market is explosive. In just the first quarter of 2022 alone, the short-video app has been downloaded 19 million times. In all, TikTok has about 80 million U.S. users – about one-fourth of the U.S. population.
TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance. This is a matter of worry in Washington, since explicit Chinese law that requires Chinese companies share information with the intelligence agencies of the Chinese Communist Party. Given the massive torrents of data TikTok collects on its users, the Trump Administration proposed forcing ByteDance to sell off TikTok. The company allayed these concerns by promising to seal off any sensitive data from China. With TikTok storing U.S. user data in the United States, with backups in Singapore, the issued seemed resolved.
Then on June 17, Buzzfeed reported that leaked audio from dozens of TikTok internal meetings revealed that employees expressed concern U.S. user data was being accessed by China.
“I feel like these tools, there’s some backdoor to access user data in almost all of them,” one external auditor said.
“Everything is seen in China,” said a member of TikTok’s “trust and safety” department.
Another insider referred to a Beijing-based engineer as a “Master Admin” who has “access to everything.”
Now Brendan Carr, Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, has written to CEOs Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai to ask that Apple and Google remove TikTok from their app stores.
Carr wrote that TikTok’s image as “an app for sharing funny videos or memes” is just “the sheep’s clothing.” He added:
“TikTok collects everything from search and browsing histories to keystroke patterns and biometric identifiers, including faceprints – which researchers have said might be used in unrelated facial recognition technology – and voiceprints. It collects location data as well as draft messages and metadata, plus it has collected the text, images, and videos that are stored on a device’s clipboard.”
TikTok has already paid $92 million to settle lawsuits that it clandestinely transferred vast amounts of Americans’ user data to China. India has banned TikTok, as have the U.S. military and many federal agencies. With so much criticism, TikTok is now working furiously on a project, codenamed “Project Texas,” to work out a deal with Oracle and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to exclusively store sensitive user information on U.S. servers.
Commissioner Carr remains skeptical. “TikTok has long claimed that its U.S. user data has been stored on servers in the U.S., and yet those representations provided no protection against the data being accessed from Beijing.”
Some might find Carr’s demands to private businesses to be heavy handed. Whether or not Apple and Google should remove TikTok from their app stores, at a minimum Americans need to be aware that their personal data might be at risk.