Is TikTok being used to amplify disinformation campaigns?

Digital
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The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has urged both Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores over China-related security concerns.

Brendan Carr, one of the FCC’s commissioners, shared a letter via Twitter on June 28th, which was addressed to Tim Cook of Apple and Sundar Pichai of Alphabet Inc. (Google’s parent company). In the letter, he asked them to remove TikTok from their app stores due to the company’s “pattern of surreptitious data practices.”

He added that “TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance – an organization that is beholden to the Communist Party of China and required by Chinese law to comply with PRC’s surveillance demands”.

The commissioner has also said he believes that “TikTok’s pattern of conduct and misrepresentations regarding the unfettered access that persons in Beijing have to sensitive US user data” violates Apple’s and Google’s standards.

Within the letter, he alleges that TikTok collects everything from search histories to “keystroke patterns and biometric identifiers, including faceprints, and voiceprints”. He adds that the company also collects location data, text, images and videos stored on the device’s clipboard.

Due to this, he believes that TikTok is “not just an app for sharing funny videos or memes… At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data.”

Carr has asked Alphabet and Apple to respond to his request to remove TikTok from their app stores by July 8.

Since Commissioner Carr posted his letter, TikTok has admitted that some of its China-based employees can access information from American users. However, the company has stated that these employees must clear a number of internal security protocols and none of that information is shared with the Chinese government.

Trump, Buzzfeed also have concerns

This is not the first time that TikTok has come under the spotlight for privacy-related concerns. Back in 2020, then-President Donald Trump alleged that the app may be “used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party”. However, these allegations have continually been denied by TikTok and its owner, ByteDance.

Similarly, in June 2022, Buzzfeed News published a report that detailed leaked audio from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings. The audio exposed that TikTok employees based in China had “repeatedly accessed non-public data about US TikTok users” from September 2021 to January 2022.

In response, TikTok announced that it had started routing American users’ data to US-based servers owned by Oracle. However, according to Commissioner Carr, this does not provide any protection against data being accessed in Beijing.

TikTok, misinformation and US data – the view from Spike

With the July 8 deadline now rapidly approaching, executives at Apple and Google have remained quiet regarding Commissioner Carr’s request. However, the company’s admission that some of its employees can access US-based data has caused outrage in the US Senate.

Due to this, it appears incredibly likely that TikTok will further strengthen its data security practices. At present, the social networking giant is working with the US government on strengthening data security around that information – particularly anything defined as “protected” by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, or CFIUS.

In addition, doubts remain about TikTok’s ability to combat disinformation. Over the past few months, the platform has been used to spread conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns surrounding coronavirus and the war in Ukraine. Due to this, it appears as though American lawmakers certainly have the right to be concerned both about online privacy and the ability for the platform to spread potentially damaging misinformation. That said, whether Google and Apple act on the matter remains to be seen.