Tensions between the U.S. government and TikTok are heating up again. In a letter posted to Twitter (opens in new tab), FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr directed Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet (Google) CEO Sundar Pichai to remove the social media video app from their respective app stores.
Carr states that if they do not remove the app by July 8 then they must provide a statement explaining how the app does not violate the policies of their respective app stores.
We have reached out to Apple, Google and TikTok, but there has been no official comment at this time. We will update this story if we receive comment.
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/Le01fBpNjnJune 28, 2022
TikTok tension: Why is it happening now?
On June 17, BuzzFeed (opens in new tab) dropped a report accusing ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) of misleading U.S. officials regarding their handling of U.S. user data. In October 2021, a ByteDance executive testified that access to U.S. user data would only be determined by a U.S.-based security team.
However, BuzzFeed found evidence that suggests that from September 2021 to January 2022, control of this U.S. user data was under the direction of engineers in China. This is potentially concerning, as any data in China could be accessed by the Chinese government. TikTok for its part described the BuzzFeed report as “misleading” in a statement to CNN (opens in new tab).
Carr specifically cites this report in his letter to Apple and Alphabet. He goes on to state that TikTok represents “a serious national security threat” and highlights several examples where TikTok potentially violated the policies of Apple and Google’s respective app stores.
On the same day as the BuzzFeed report dropped, TikTok announced that “100% of US user traffic is being routed to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure.” Carr acknowledges this in his letter, stating that while the traffic is being routed to Oracle servers, there is no guarantee that the data on those servers cannot be accessed from elsewhere, including Beijing.
TikTok tension: What happened last time the US government stepped in?
If drama between TikTok and the U.S. government sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Back in 2020, former President Donald Trump attempted to force ByteDance to divest from TikTok’s U.S. operations. This led to rumors of a sale to Microsoft which ultimately collapsed, and a rumored sale to Oracle that ultimately collapsed as well.
In the end, nothing substantive came from this attempt to force ByteDance out of TikTok in the U.S. However, it did begin the partnership between ByteDance and Oracle that has led to U.S. user data for TikTok now being stored on Oracle cloud servers.
TikTok tension: How does this impact users?
For now, this will have no impact on the U.S. users of the popular social media video app. It is unclear what authority, if any, the FCC has to regulate what can or cannot be on app stores. Additionally, there has yet to be any sign from FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel that the rest of the commission will be supporting Carr’s efforts.
However, this letter and the BuzzFeed report do highlight the need for users to be vigilant regarding what data they do or do not share over the internet and on social media. While Chinese government access to U.S. user data is certainly concerning, there are other threats that consumers face every day in the digital world. Just over a month ago, we covered a report from Vice regarding how smartphone location data is readily available for sale (opens in new tab).
We will update this story if we receive comment from TikTok, Apple or Google.