India bans TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps citing security concerns
India has banned dozens of mobile apps with Chinese links in its strongest move yet targeting China in the online space since a border crisis erupted between the two countries this month.
India’s technology ministry issued an order to ban 59 mostly Chinese apps, stating they were “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”.
The list of banned apps includes social media and messaging platforms TikTok, WeChat and Weibo and the game Clash of Kings.
The ministry said it had mounting concerns about data security and safeguarding the privacy of 1.3 billion Indians. Following the order, Google and Apple will have to remove the banned apps from the Android and iOS stores.
The move comes after a deadly border clash between the two nuclear-armed neighbours in the disputed eastern Ladakh region in the Himalayas earlier this month that resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers.
The ban is expected to be a big stumbling block in India for Chinese firms such as Bytedance, which owns TikTok and has placed big bets in what is one of the world’s biggest web services markets.
Beijing-headquartered Bytedance had plans to invest US$1 billion in India, open a local data centre, and had recently ramped up hiring in the country.
India is the biggest driver of TikTok app installations, accounting for 611 million lifetime downloads, or 30.3 per cent of the total, app analytics firm Sensor Tower said in April.
Among other apps that have been banned are Tencent’s WeChat, which has been downloaded more than 100 million times on Android phones, Alibaba’s UC Browser and two of Xiaomi’s apps.
Google said it was still waiting for government orders, while Apple did not respond to a request for comment. Bytedance did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“This is the quickest and most powerful step the Government could have taken to put economic pressure on Chinese companies,” said Santosh Pai, a partner at Indian law firm Link Legal, which advises several Chinese companies.
Anti-China sentiment has long simmered in India over accusations of cheap imports flooding the country, but the border clash has brought tensions to the fore with calls being made to boycott Chinese products.
Indian customs at ports have since last week held back containers coming from China, including Apple, Cisco and Dell products.
TikTok security concerns
Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the ABC earlier this year that: “The key difference between Facebook and Instagram and TikTok is that there really isn’t much of a firewall between Chinese tech companies and the Chinese state.”
Federal MP and chairman of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, Andrew Hastie, fears that TikTok could be sharing private information with authorities in Beijing.
“China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017 means the Chinese Government can compel businesses to share information with them,” he told 7.30.
“So, I doubt if our information is secure when it’s owned by Chinese companies.”
He said TikTok poses a potential national security threat to Australia, even though at this stage the app is mostly used by teenagers.
The developer release of iOS 14 for iPhones, with its new privacy features, recently showed that TikTok, among other apps, access data from a user’s copy/paste clipboard without their knowledge, alarming privacy advocates.
TikTok tells Australian MPs to stop using it as ‘political football’ amid rising China tensions
Social media company TikTok has written to Australian MPs claiming to be “caught in the middle” of rising tensions between countries, and saying it is being used as a “political football”.
The letter, sent to members of parliament on Monday, said it was correcting the record on “false claims” made about TikTok and the company’s ties to the Chinese government.
It followed calls by an anonymous federal MP calling for the app to be banned earlier this month, and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, stating it was “right for people to have an increased awareness of where these platforms originate and the risks they present”.
TikTok, an app owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, allows users to share short videos, often in the form of lip-syncing or dancing. It is popular among younger people, and has been downloaded more than 2bn times globally.
Australia’s prime minister only became aware of the app when he was featured in a meme of TikTok users lip-syncing to his calling out ABC political editor Andrew Probyn at a press conference.
Since his comments which drew attention to the privacy issues with the app, Morrison has had dozens of accounts on Twitter begging him not to ban TikTok.
The main concerns surround whether TikTok’s parent company would be required to share information collected on users with the Chinese government.
Recently it was also discovered, through an Apple iOS 14 beta privacy function, that TikTok was reading the text of users’ clipboards.
The letter from the company’s Australian general manager, Lee Hunter, said TikTok is “independent, and not aligned with any government, political party or ideology”, and user data is kept secure.
“The truth is, with tensions rising between some countries, TikTok has unfortunately been caught in the middle and is being used by some as a political football. I assure you – we’re a social media platform for sharing videos – that’s all,” Hunter told Guardian Australia in a statement.
The company says Australian TikTok user data is stored in Singapore and the United States, and the company has never provided user data to the Chinese government. It says no government has “special access” to TikTok Australia user data.
Australia so far is much more cautious about plans to ban TikTok compared with India, which has already banned the app, or the US, where US secretary of state Mike Pompeo indicated a ban could go ahead.
The US navy and army have banned soldiers from using the app, and Amazon instructed workers to delete the app from their phones, before reversing that decision.
It is understood the app will be scrutinised by the Australian Senate’s investigation into foreign influence through social media, with the committee sending questions to the company this month.
TikTok has not yet made a formal submission to the inquiry, despite the letter drop to MPs.
To date, the inquiry’s focus has largely been on misinformation and other foreign actor campaigns conducted on the social media platforms, not whether the platforms themselves are engaged in surveillance on behalf of its home country.
In September, the Guardian revealed TikTok had instructed its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.
U.S. Military Branches Block Access to TikTok App Amid Pentagon Warning
The warning from the Pentagon was unequivocal: Military personnel should delete TikTok from all smartphones.
Now, a number of United States military branches are heeding that advice, issued last month by the Defense Department, and have banned the popular Chinese-owned social media app on government-issued smartphones.
Some have even strongly discouraged members of the armed forces from keeping TikTok on their personal electronic devices.
The vigilance coincides with heightened scrutiny of the short-form video-sharing platform by Congress and a national security review of TikTok, which is among the top downloaded smartphone apps worldwide.
“Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command has blocked TikTok from government-issued mobile devices,” Capt. Christopher Harrison, a United States Marine Corps spokesman, said Friday in an email. “This decision is consistent with our efforts to proactively address existing and emerging threats as we secure and defend our network. This block only applies to government-issued mobile devices.”
In a Dec. 16 message to the various military branches, the Pentagon said there was a “potential risk associated with using the TikTok app,” and it advised employees to take several precautions to safeguard their personal information. It said the easiest solution to prevent “unwanted actors” from getting access to that information was to remove the app.
“Doing so will not prevent already potentially compromised information from propagating, but it could keep additional information from being collected,” the Pentagon’s message said.
The United States Army banned TikTok from military-issued smartphones in response to last month’s warning, Lt. Col. Robin Ochoa, an Army spokeswoman, said Friday in an email.
“Those who have a government issued device are requested to remove the application,” she said.
Josh Gartner, a spokesman for ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok, declined to comment about the Pentagon warning and the response of several military branches.
This was not the first time that the Defense Department had been compelled to urge members of the military to remove a popular app from their phones.
In 2016, the Defense Department banned Pokémon Go, the augmented-reality game, from military smartphones. But in that case, military officials cited concerns over productivity and the potential distraction hazards of pursuing the virtual Pokémon while driving or walking. The Canadian military also grappled with Pokémon Go.
The concerns over TikTok center on cybersecurity and spying by the Chinese government.
In a November blog post on TikTok’s website, the general manager of TikTok US, Vanessa Pappas, wrote that data security was a priority and that the company wanted to be as transparent as possible for stakeholders in the United States.
The blog post came as the United States government opened a national security review of a Chinese company’s acquisition of the American company that became TikTok.
“As we have said before, and recently confirmed through an independent security audit, we store all US user data in the United States, with backup redundancy in Singapore,” Ms. Pappas wrote. “TikTok’s data centers are located entirely outside of China.”
In October, Senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton, Democrat of New York and Republican of Arkansas, sent a letter to the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, calling for an assessment of national security risks posed by TikTok and other China-based content platforms.
The senators said Chinese companies must comply with a “vague patchwork” of intelligence, national security and cybersecurity laws that have no mechanism for appealing decisions of the Chinese Communist government.
“Questions have also been raised regarding the potential for censorship or manipulation of certain content,” the senators’ letter said.
“TikTok reportedly censors materials deemed politically sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party, including content related to the recent Hong Kong protests, as well as references to Tiananmen Square, Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, and the treatment of Uighurs. The platform is also a potential target of foreign influence campaigns like those carried out during the 2016 election on U.S.-based social media platforms.”
Members of the United States Air Force are not allowed to install unauthorized apps on their military-issued phones, an Air Force spokeswoman said Friday in an email. The spokeswoman did not specify whether TikTok was one of those applications and did not immediately respond to a follow-up inquiry.
“The threats posed by social media are not unique to TikTok (though they may certainly be greater on that platform), and DoD personnel must be cautious when making any public or social media post,” the Air Force spokeswoman said. “All DoD personnel take annual cyber-awareness training that covers the threats that social media can pose, as well as annual operations security training that covers the broader issue of safeguarding information.”
Chief Warrant Officer Barry Lane, a United States Coast Guard spokesman, said in an email Friday, “TikTok is not an application currently used on any official Coast Guard device.”
He said Coast Guard members go through security and cyberawareness training ever year.
“This training includes best practices to safeguard sensitive and personal information on social media platforms,” he said.
The United States Navy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The New York Times
Top Gamer Ninja Deletes TikTok Over Privacy Concerns
TikTok’s recent streak of bad news continued Thursday when elite gamer and YouTuber Tyler “Ninja” Blevins tweeted that he had deleted the China-based app over privacy concerns.
“I have deleted the TikTok app off all my devices. Hopefully a less intrusive company (data farming) that isn’t owned by China can recreate the concept legally, such funny and amazing content on the app from influencers,” Ninja tweeted to his 6 million followers. He didn’t, however, delete his TikTok account, which as of Thursday night was still active.
The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to TikTok for comment.
The rejection of a highly influential gamer like Ninja is the latest blow to TikTok in what is becoming a summer to forget for the company and a stark counterpoint to the rapid growth that saw it hit 1 billion users in just over two years. The short-video social network, owned by Beijing-based tech giant ByteDance, has long been dogged by privacy concerns and whether the Chinese government has access to user data. The company has consistently denied any links to Chinese state actors and says user data is safe.
Despite its protestations, TikTok is reeling from a cascade of global events. Last month, India’s government banned TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps citing privacy and national security issues, a move prompted by a deadly Himalayan border clash between the two countries.
The ban in India is a huge setback for TikTok as it had well over 200 million users and was growing rapidly, with the country accounting for 30 percent of all global downloads. Some China-based reports say that ByteDance could lose as much as $6 billion following the India ban.
There have been intermittent calls for the U.S. to follow India and ban TikTok, and this movement was given impetus by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a Fox News interview this week. In the interview, Pompeo suggested the U.S. government is currently “looking at” a ban on Chinese social media apps with the focus on TikTok. “With respect to Chinese apps on people’s cellphones, I can assure you the United States will get this one right too,” Pompeo said in an interview on Monday’s episode of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle. “I don’t want to get out in front of the president, but it’s something we’re looking at.”
Pompeo added that people should only download TikTok “if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”
The Australian government is also mulling over a TikTok ban, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying this week that it’s “right for people to have an increased awareness of where these platforms originate and the risks they present.”
Seeking to staunch accusations of its closeness to the Chinese government, on Monday TikTok pulled out of Hong Kong because of privacy concerns over a new National Security Law passed in the territory. TikTok went further than its tech rivals in rejecting possible requests for user information from Hong Kong police, but the company only had 150,000 users in that market.
TikTok’s woes and uncertain future is providing an opportunity for its rivals. This week Instagram’s TikTok-like short-video platform Reels went live in India, Brazil, France and Germany, with further expansion imminent.
US government is investigating TikTok for collecting children’s personal information
The Federal Trade Commission and the US Justice Department are looking into allegations that popular app TikTok failed to live up to a 2019 agreement aimed at protecting children’s privacy, according to two people interviewed by the agencies.
A staffer in a Massachusetts tech policy group and another source said they took part in separate conference calls with FTC and Justice Department officials to discuss accusations the China-based short video sharing app had failed to live up to an agreement announced in February 2019.
The Center for Digital Democracy, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and others in May asked the FTC look into their allegations TikTok failed to delete videos and personal information about users age 13 and younger as it had agreed to do, among other violations.
Reuters could not determine whether any action would be taken against TikTok by either of the two agencies.
A TikTok spokesman said they take “safety seriously for all our users,” adding that in the United States they “accommodate users under 13 in a limited app experience that introduces additional safety and privacy protections designed specifically for a younger audience.”
Officials from both the FTC, which reached the original consent agreement with TikTok, and Justice Department, which often files court documents for the FTC, met via video with representatives of the groups to discuss the matter, said David Monahan, a campaign manager with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
“I got the sense from our conversation that they are looking into the assertions that we raised in our complaint,” Monahan said.
A second person, speaking privately, confirmed that advocates had met with officials from the two agencies to discuss concerns TikTok violated the consent decree.
The FTC declined to comment. The Justice Department had no immediate comment.