Commerce Department Says Social Media Apps Pose National Security Threat
Watch for updates on this developing story.
The U.S. Commerce Department is banning the downloading and hosting of China-based social media apps TikTok and WeChat effective on Sunday, citing national security concerns.
The Friday announcement from the Commerce Department comes as ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, and software giant Oracle continue to negotiate a deal for partnering on U.S. operations (see: TikTok’s Response to Trump? Let’s Make a Deal).
President Donald Trump issued an executive order Aug. 14 giving ByteDance 90 days to find an American buyer for its U.S. operations or face a ban (see: Trump Orders TikTok Owner to Divest US Operations).
Starting Sunday, the apps may no longer be downloaded or hosted on any U.S. internet sites. In addition, WeChat may no longer be used to transfer funds or process payments within the U.S.
“The Chinese Communist Party has demonstrated the means and motives to use these apps to threaten the national security, foreign policy and the economy of the U.S.,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says. “Today’s announced prohibitions, when combined, protect users in the U.S. by eliminating access to these applications and significantly reducing their functionality.”
Wilbur notes in his statement that Trump has given all parties until Nov. 12 for the national security concerns posed by TikTok to be resolved. If this is accomplished, the ban may be lifted. This gives ByteDance time to work on its TikTok deal with Oracle.
Oracle and ByteDance did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
TikTok and WeChat
The Commerce Department order means that, as of Sunday, TikTok and WeChat can no longer be downloaded from the Apple and Google app stores. American users who already have the social media apps can still continue to use them, but they won’t be able to download updates, according to the order.
The Commerce Department order also bans internet service providers and content delivery providers from hosting or optimizing the apps. This part of the order goes into effect for WeChat on Sept. 20 and TikTok on Nov. 12.
The order cites national security threats posed by WeChat and TikTok, saying that each app collects vast swaths of user data including network activity, location data and browsing and search histories. “This combination results in the use of WeChat and TikTok creating unacceptable risks to our national security,” according to the Commerce Department.
The concern among Trump administration officials is that the Chinese government can access this data to spy on Americans.
Oracle Waits in the Wings
The Commerce Department announcement comes less than a week after Oracle and the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Oracle had submitted a bid that would make the company the “trusted technology provider” to TikTok, helping to alleviate some of the concerns the Trump administration has with the Chinese-owned social media firm (see: TikTok Picks Oracle as US ‘Technology Partner’.)
But the Chinese state broadcaster CGTN reported on Monday that ByteDance will not sell its U.S. TikTok operations and will not share its source code with any buyers in the U.S.
ByteDance previously rejected a bid by Microsoft to take over its U.S. operations.
Impact of Ban in India
“India was one of the first countries that banned TikTok and took it off the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store,” says Hank Schless, senior manager, security solutions at mobile security provider Lookout. “This didn’t stop consumers from searching for it on third-party app stores and then cybercriminals exploited the situation by publishing fake versions embedded with malware.
A nationwide ban could open up opportunities for cybercriminals to circulate malicious versions of the TikTok app, he says. “Considering the young user base that TikTok has, it’s natural for consumers of that age to want something more when it’s taken away from them. In India, cybercriminals distributed a fake version of the “TikTok Pro” app via social media, SMS and messaging platforms within a week of the nation banning the real TikTok app.”