In 2020, then-president Donald Trump attempted to ban the wildly popular social media app TikTok. Its Gen Z influencers were horrified — how dare the bad orange man take away their right to vogue to teen beats in search of internet fame?
Unfortunately, we would not be shielded from TikTok’s insane viral trends (the latest involves users getting food poisoning after purchasing one creator’s mysterious and apparently highly perishable “pink sauce“). Trump’s order was stalled by legal proceedings and ultimately overturned by President Biden when he took office. Yet America still faces serious national security issues from TikTok due to its ownership by a Chinese company, ByteDance.
ByteDance has long since scrapped any plans it had to sell TikTok to comply with Trump’s order. And companies that operate in China are subject to the country’s Data Security Law, which essentially forces private companies to assist the Chinese Communist Party in data collection (aka spying). TikTok has repeatedly assured users — and the US government — that user info will not be stored in China and thus accessible to the CCP. Unsurprisingly, that turned out to not be true.
TikTok confirmed on July 1 in a letter to nine Republican senators that ByteDance employees located in China could access user data through special “approval protocols.”
These protocols were “subject to a series of robust cybersecurity controls and authorization approval protocols overseen by our US-based security team,” TikTok claimed.
Even worse, leaked audio from team meetings obtained by BuzzFeed suggested that these approval protocols were not nearly so stringent. The recordings reveal that nearly a dozen TikTok employees indicated that Chinese data engineers had access to US data for at least four months from 2021 to 2022. Further, American employees often had to ask their Chinese counterparts about the flow of US data because they were unable to access it themselves.
“Everything is seen in China,” a member of TikTok’s trust and safety department said in one of these meetings.
TikTok is aware that it has a major security issue, but instead of uncoupling from ByteDance the company is attempting to strictly control its PR. Gizmodo obtained internal documents instructing TikTok employees to “downplay” the company’s connection to China. Employees are told to never comment on anything relating to ByteDance, to remind the media that TikTok is not available in app stores in China, and to emphasize that it would never share data with China, even if asked.
Of course, it’s awfully convenient that TikTok refuses to talk about its parent company when that’s where the concern about data sharing with the CCP ultimately rests. There’s certainly no good reason to trust ByteDance. The company has allegedly already used one of its apps to do the bidding of the CCP, according to BuzzFeed. Four former employees who worked on the now-defunct news app TopBuzz claimed they were told to push pro-China messaging to the top of newsfeeds.
FCC commissioner Brendan Carr is calling for TikTok to be removed from app stores in the US due to its harvesting of sensitive data. He is right. Cheap entertainment is not worth the CCP using your phone as a listening device, copying your fingerprints, and tracking every keystroke.
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