TikTok promises to keep its U.S. users’ data safe and sound are not satisfying at least one member of the Federal Communications Commission. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said in a blistering letter Wednesday that the Chinese company has proved it can’t be trusted with the information users give it, and should bundled up and tossed out the airlock.
Carr posted an open letter sent to both Google and Apple on his Twitter account Tuesday. In it, he called on the companies to jettison the TikTok app from their app stores. Carr cites multiple cases of the company being exceptionally data-hungry. Most recently, BuzzFeed News reported that the Chinese government had gained access to American users’ data despite TikTok’s claims that it kept U.S. user info on servers on U.S. soil, far from from the prying eyes of Beijing. Carr said in his letter that both Apple and Google parent company Alphabet should remove TikTok from the app stores or else send him a letter by July 8 explaining themselves.
TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. In his letter, Carr said the extraordinarily popular social app, which as been downloaded 19 million times across both Google and Apple’s platforms in the first quarter of this year alone, “poses an unacceptable national security risk” because of its data harvesting activities combined with China’s ever-expanding surveillance state.
The commissioner further claimed that the company’s alleged abuse of user data “puts it out of compliance” with both companies’ app store policies. In particular, he cites guidelines requiring apps to show how and where they will use personal information.
Neither Google nor Apple immediately responded to Gizmodo’s requests for comment. A TikTok spokesperson did not offer a statement regarding Carr’s letter, but instead said “We will gladly engage with lawmakers to set the record straight regarding BuzzFeed’s misleading reporting.” A spokesperson had previously told Gizmodo “we aim to remove any doubt about the security of U.S. user data.”
Carr, who was originally appointed to the FCC under former President Donald Trump, has previously railed against Silicon Valley giants like Twitter. Though he told Gizmodo in a phone interview that the letter doesn’t represent any kind of FCC “regulatory hook,” it instead presents “a path forward to addressing that threat” through getting the companies on board. Although he said this letter’s contention against TikTok hasn’t been deeply discussed with other members of the commission, he hopes they will look harder at the matter since they have already reached “bipartisan consensus” on Chinese companies like Huawei.
The commissioner admitted he doesn’t have high expectations that either company will censor the hugely popular TikTok app on their platforms because of the “deep relationships in supply chain ties that Apple and Google have into China.” Still, he hopes the companies will look at the issue “neutrally through the application of their policies.”
The FCC commissioner also cited 2020 reports that TikTok got its hands on persistent user data by circumventing Google’s safeguards and was gobbling up passwords and personal messages from iOS devices. TikTok agreed to pay $92 million in 2021 for collecting massive amounts of private information and user data and sending it to Chinese servers.
Though the letter has no real legal threat behind it, Carr’s words help call attention to TikTok’s answers to lawmakers’ previous concerns about how the app maker handles user data. Donald Trump attempted to ban TikTok then coax ByteDance into selling TikTok to a U.S. partner.
The commissioner claimed there is “precedent” for the two tech giants to remove apps that fail to live up to their standards, pointing out that both App Store and Android Play Store removed apps for harvesting user data. Google has previously said “All apps on Google Play must comply with our policies, regardless of the developer. When we determine an app violates these policies, we take appropriate action.”
However, none of those previously-removed apps on either platform were anywhere near as big as TikTok.
The Buzzfeed report was based on several leaked audio from internal meetings. One employee reportedly stated that, effectively, “everything is seen in China.” Another employee apparently told a colleague “I get my instructions from the main office in Beijing.” This is despite the company previously assuring congressional lawmakers that the U.S. offices get final say on what happens to Americans’ data. Almost as if it was anticipating the news of that original June 17 Buzzfeed report, TikTok announced it had completed moving its American user data to U.S.-based servers that same day.
Update 6/29/22 1:20 p.m./1:50 p.m. ET: This post was updated to include quotes from FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr and a TikTok spokesperson.