The U.S. will ban the downloads of the Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat on Sunday, with a total ban on the use of the latter, citing national security and data privacy concerns.
A total ban on the use of TikTok will follow on November 12, but Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said early Friday on Fox Business Network that access to that app may be possible if certain safeguards are put into place.
“At the President’s direction, we have taken significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data, while promoting our national values, democratic rules-based norms, and aggressive enforcement of U.S. laws and regulations,” Mr. Ross said in a statement.
The government said its order will “combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data.”
The order also raises questions about California tech giant Oracle’s recent deal to take over U.S. operations of TikTok, a requirement by the Trump administration for the app to continue operating in the U.S.
Details of the Oracle-TikTok deal were sketchy at best. Oracle was among the pool of bidders, including Microsoft and Walmart, to buy TikTok’s American operations. Oracle, in confirming it was the winning bidder on Monday, didn’t refer to the deal as a sale or acquisition, instead saying it was chosen as TikTok’s “trusted technology provider.” It’s unclear at this point what assets, if any, Oracle would actually acquire.
Chinese access to data
Some security experts have raised concerns that ByteDance Ltd., the Chinese company that owns TikTok, would maintain access to information on the 100 million TikTok users in the U.S., creating a security risk.
Like most social networks, TikTok collects user data and moderates users’ posts. It grabs users’ locations and messages and tracks what they watch to figure out how best to target ads to them.
Similar concerns apply to U.S.-based social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, but Chinese ownership adds an extra wrinkle because the Chinese government could order firms to help it gather intelligence.
TikTok says it does not store U.S. user data in China and that it would not give user data to the government. But experts say the Chinese government can get any information it wants from companies there.
The action is part of the U.S. administration’s latest attempt to weaken influence from China. Since taking office in 2017, Mr. Trump has waged a trade war with China, blocked mergers involving Chinese companies and stifled the business of Chinese firms like Huawei, a maker of phones and telecom equipment. China-backed hackers, meanwhile, have been blamed for data breaches of U.S. federal databases and the credit agency Equifax, and the Chinese government strictly limits what U.S. tech companies can do in China.
Republican and Democratic lawmaker concerns about TikTok include its vulnerability to censorship and misinformation campaigns, and the safety of user data and children’s privacy. But the administration has provided no specific evidence that TikTok has made U.S. users’ data available to the Chinese government.
Officials point to the hypothetical threat that lies in the Chinese government’s ability to demand cooperation from Chinese companies.