Why lawmakers aren’t buying TikTok’s assurances on China
Tuesday, Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee — urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the company engaged in deceptive practices.
The letter marked a major escalation against the company and underscored how its attempts to assure officials that their national security concerns are overblown are not landing.
“Warner and Rubio are stalwarts of national security and their bipartisan concern that TikTok may have misled the public and government officials about access to US data from inside the PRC significantly raises the stakes for TikTok” , said the Republican commissioner. Brendan Carrwho recently urged app stores to ban TikTok, says Technology 202.
In response to the letter, the TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said in a statement: “For two years, we have spoken openly about our work to limit access to user data in all regions, and in our letter to senators last week, we were clear about our progress to further restrict access.”
Here’s why TikTok’s responses ring hollow on Capitol Hill:
TikTok says it won’t share data with China. Could China access it anyway?
Lawmakers have repeatedly pressed TikTok to say whether Chinese government officials have access to US user data on the app through various channels.
“We do not share information with the Chinese government”, Michael Beckerman, head of policy for TikTok for the Americas, testified before the Senate Commerce Committee in October. He reiterated the remarks during a television interview on Sunday, adding that TikTok would never do that.
But US officials have expressed concern that Chinese authorities could force TikTok to share such data if accessed by workers in China or through an affiliated organization.
During a 2020 interview with CyberScoop, TikTok Chief Security Officer Roland Cloutier went further in his assurances, saying that “neither the data nor the use of TikTok occurs in China”, and that Chinese authorities “would therefore not have jurisdiction over the platform”.
“The data doesn’t even exist in China…the biggest fundamental truths are that the Chinese government doesn’t ask for it, because it doesn’t exist in China,” he said. (Cloutier has previously spoken of trying to “minimize data access” to US information in China.)
The senators said the remarks were contradicted by a recent BuzzFeed report that “China-based ByteDance employees repeatedly accessed non-public data about US TikTok users” – suggesting that US users’ data from TikTok may “exist” or “occur” in China. (TikTok dismissed the report as “incorrect and unsupported by facts.”)
TikTok overplayed ‘firewall’ with Chinese parent company, officials say
Lawmakers are equally concerned about how TikTok fits into the corporate structure of its parent company, Beijing-based tech giant ByteDance, and what that might mean for data access in China.
During TikTok’s first congressional hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) asked Beckerman about the Chinese government’s stake in a subsidiary of ByteDance in China, which controls the company’s Chinese social media and news platforms.
“I want to make it clear that this entity has no affiliation with TikTok,” Beckerman replied.
“You answer non-sequences and refuse to answer very simple questions,” Cruz said. “In my experience, when a witness does that, it’s because they’re hiding something.”
According to Warner and Rubio’s letter, “as recently as March of this year, TikTok officials reiterated to our committee statements they had previously made that all corporate governance decisions are fully protected by a firewall of … ByteDance”.
A spokesperson for the Senate Intelligence Committee, who was not authorized to speak officially, said the representations were made during a call held with TikTok in response to reports that the company was misrepresenting the content about the war in Ukraine.
The exchanges are now under new scrutiny after BuzzFeed reported that a TikTok team tasked with managing access to sensitive US data “reports to ByteDance management in China”.
Another data point fueling concern about TikTok’s parent company: Responding to a separate letter from Senate Republicans last month, TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew said that “ByteDance engineers around the world could help develop” TikTok’s algorithms. The revelation raised questions about how the company delivers content to users.
Apple has unveiled a new security measure to block spyware
Apple’s new software “lockdown mode” will block many message attachments and prevent links from being previewed on devices owned by potential government spyware victims, Joseph Menn reports. Apple is releasing the feature on test builds of its operating system and plans to roll out the feature more widely in the fall.
“The vast majority of users” won’t need to use this feature, Apple’s head of security engineering said. Ivan Krstic. Users will be able to easily enable and disable the feature.
“Apple’s lockdown tactic resolves a longstanding tension in its design approach between security concerns and the pursuit of easy-to-use, highly functional capabilities,” Menn wrote. “The added usability has made phones more vulnerable to attacks via iMessage, FaceTime, and other software. Lockdown mode gives users the choice of whether or not to retain these features. When enabled, it limits what the phone can do.
Apple sued Israeli company NSO Group and notified potential victims of its Pegasus spyware after The Post and 16 media partners reported last year that Pegasus was being used to target activists, journalists and executives. The Biden administration also blacklisted NSO last year, limiting its ability to receive American technology.
EU lawmakers propose restrictions on political targeting of ads
Under the proposal, tech companies would not be allowed to display political ads based on online tracking and profiling, Politico Europe said. Clothilde Goujard reports. “Political parties could soon only target voters through online advertisements based on data they themselves choose to share, including their gender, age, location and language,” writes Goujard.
Policymakers are scrambling to get the rules ready by the 2024 European elections.
“This decision could have a significant effect on online political advertising, where politicians and foreign actors have in recent years been able to display paid political messages to voters based on their behaviors and their wealth of data,” writes Goujard. “The manipulation of voters through microtargeting was at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018.”
UK-backed review recommends ban on sharing sexual ‘deepfakes’
The review by the UK’s Independent Law Commission came as the technology behind fake but realistic sex images and videos of people advances, according to the Financial Times. Cristina Criddle reports.
UK laws are not doing enough to address “new disturbing and abusive behavior born in the age of smartphones”, the commission argued. The commission had been reviewing existing laws relating to non-consensual intimate images since 2019, Criddle reports.
“The review comes as the long-awaited Online Safety Bill makes its way through Parliament,” Criddle writes. “Many previous law commission recommendations have already been added to the legislation, including the criminalization of revenge pornography and cyberflashing, where an indecent image is shared without the recipient’s consent.” The UK government told the Financial Times that the bill would “force internet companies to better protect people from a range of image-based abuse, including deepfakes”, and it will review the recommendations.
Policymakers from the European Union to California and Virginia have introduced rules targeting deepfakes. “Under a new EU code of conduct, regulators can charge tech companies up to 6% of their global turnover if they don’t crack down on deepfakes,” Criddle writes.
Parents sue TikTok, claiming children died after watching ‘blackout challenge’ (The New York Times)
DoorDash shares fall as Amazon takes a stake in Grubhub (Bloomberg)
UK flexes new muscle in Microsoft and Amazon antitrust probes (Wall Street Journal)
Facebook asks a US court for old FTC merger documents in an antitrust fight (Reuters)
Democrats seek to bolster media literacy for students and veterans with two new bills (The Hill)
Elon Musk had twins last year with one of his top executives (Insider)
- The Atlantic Council is hosting an event on new UK data protection rules on Tuesday at 9am
- Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger discusses semiconductor manufacturing and government support during a Washington Post live event Tuesday at noon.
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