An FCC commissioner has asked Apple and Google to remove popular video platform TikTok from app stores days after a BuzzFeed News report showed how the company’s China-based employees repeatedly accessed data of American users despite the TikTok’s repeated denials over the years.
“It is clear that TikTok poses an unacceptable national security risk due to its extensive data harvesting being combined with Beijing’s apparently unchecked access to that sensitive data,” Commissioner Brendan Carr wrote in his letter to Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, the CEOs of Apple and Google, respectively. “TikTok is not just another video app,” he added. “That’s the sheep’s clothing.”
Earlier this month, BuzzFeed News published a report after accessing leaked audio from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings that contained 14 statements from nine different TikTok employees showing that the company’s engineers in Beijing had accessed data of American TikTok users between September 2021 and January 2022. This leaked audio significantly corroborated previous reporting that suggested that China-based employees of TikTok parent company ByteDance did in fact access data of US users.
“Everything is seen in China,” said a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department in a September 2021 meeting, BuzzFeed News’ most recent reporting showed.
This week, nine Republican senators including Marsha Blackburn wrote a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew demanding answers to nearly a dozen questions about user privacy. Additionally, the senators expressed concerns about statements made by TikTok’s vice president and head of public policy for the Americas, Michael Beckerman, at an October 2021 congressional hearing headed by Blackburn, in which he said that the company did not give information to the Chinese government. Beckerman told the panel at the time that TikTok’s US user data was stored in the US and backed up in Singapore. Beckerman, the letter says, “did not provide truthful or forthright answers.”
When reached for comment on Wednesday, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter told BuzzFeed News that the company planned to respond to the senators’ letter. Oberwetter added that the company’s response to the senators would address Carr’s concerns as well.
TikTok has rapidly become one of the most popular apps used by young Americans in the last few years. TikTok was the most downloaded app both in the US and worldwide in the first quarter of 2022, beating Instagram, according to a report released in April by app analytics firm Sensor Tower.
But the company’s privacy and data-sharing practices have also come under scrutiny from policymakers and regulators thanks to its links with China. ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is headquartered in Beijing. In the past, TikTok’s former US employees have said that China-based employees are “actively involved” in decision making at the company.
In 2019, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States started investigating the national security implications of TikTok’s data collection practices. In 2020, then-president Donald Trump threatened to ban the app amid concerns that the Chinese Communist Party could use it to surveil millions of Americans.
The US isn’t the only country that has concerns about the Chinese government’s access to TikTok’s data. In 2020, India, a country with more than 700 million internet users and one of TikTok’s largest markets at the time, banned the app citing the privacy of Indian users.