Chinese-owned video app TikTok admitted that its staff in China has the ability to access the private accounts data in the United Kingdom and the European Union.
This comes after years of criticism from around the world, particularly in Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States over concerns that personal information could be passed on to the Chinese government.
The app is coming under intense scrutiny by government authorities in the West, as its parent company, ByteDance, repeatedly denies that it is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
TikTok Attempts to Explain a Privacy Loophole
TikTok said in its statement that the policy applies to “the European economic area, United Kingdom, and Switzerland.”
The company relies “on a global workforce to ensure that our community’s TikTok experience is consistent, enjoyable, and safe,” for better user experience, said Elaine Fox, TikTok’s head of privacy for Europe,
Fox said that even though the social media app currently stores European user data in the United States and Singapore, “we allow certain employees within our corporate group located in Brazil, Canada, China, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States remote access to TikTok European user data.”
“Our efforts are centered on limiting the number of employees with access to European user data, minimizing data flows outside of the region, and storing European user data locally,” she explained.
She also claimed that the app does not collect precise location data from users in the United Kingdom and the European Union (EU).
Fox said that employee access was “subject to a series of robust security controls and approval protocols, and by way of methods that are recognized under the General Data Protection Regulation.”
The new EU law will affect how companies use personal information and is slated to come into effect on May 25, 2023.
US Authorities Call for Another Crackdown on TikTok
Earlier this week, a top official at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. government’s communications watchdog, called for TikTok to be banned in the United States.
“I don’t believe there is a path forward for anything other than a ban,” Brendan Carr, a commissioner at the FCC, told Axios.
He stated that there was not “a world in which you could come up with sufficient protection on the data that you could have sufficient confidence that it’s not finding its way back into the hands of the [Chinese Communist Party].”
Carr reported asked Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores due to concerns about user privacy.
“Commissioner Carr has no role in the confidential discussions with the U.S. government related to TikTok, and appears to be expressing views independent of his role as an FCC commissioner,” a TikTok spokesperson told Axios in response to the FCC concerns.
In June this year, TikTok said it had migrated U.S. users’ information to servers run by American software giant Oracle in Austin, Texas.
Last month, TikTok denied a report in Forbes that a Chinese-based team at ByteDance was using the app to track the locations of American citizens without their consent.
The report said that ByteDance attempted to collect location data on an American citizen on at least two occasions.
TikTok belatedly denied on Twitter that it intended to target U.S. government officials, activists, public figures, and reporters.
“Forbes chose not to include the portion of our statement that disproved the feasibility of its core allegation: TikTok does not collect precise GPS location information from U.S. users, meaning TikTok could not monitor U.S. users in the way the article suggested,” ByteDance told the BBC.
TikTok programmers based in China were also accused of accessing private user information in the United States, including phone numbers and birthdays, reported BuzzFeed back in June.
Another Buzzfeed article from July reported that the social media company told its workers to push pro-Beijing talking points to American users on its news app.
ByteDance denied both of Buzzfeed’s accusations.
President Donald Trump, back in 2020, called for the app to be banned by U.S. authorities, which forced ByteDance to sell its American operations over concerns that personal data would be shared with Beijing.
However, the executive order was halted by a federal judge before it was revoked by President Joe Biden in 2021.
President Biden Faces Bipartisan Pressure to Act on Security Concerns Over the App
It was reported by The New York Times in September that discussions were ongoing between ByteDance and the Biden administration to resolve concerns regarding its app.
“I told everyone years ago that TikTok was a tool of communist China, and yet Biden invites TikTok ‘influencers’ to the White House,” said Sen. Marco Rubio,(R-Fla.), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
After intense criticism, Biden ordered the Department of Commerce to review the national security threat posed by apps like TikTok from adversarial foreign nations such as China.
However, massive use of TikTok by political campaigns for voter outreach during the U.S. midterm elections has put the controversy on the spot, reported The Washington Post.
There now is growing bipartisan opposition to the use of the Chinese app.
“This is not something you would normally hear me say, but Donald Trump was right on TikTok years ago,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told The Sidney Morning Herald last week.
“If your country uses Huawei, if your kids are on TikTok … the ability for China to have undue influence is a much greater challenge and a much more immediate threat than any kind of actual, armed conflict,” he said.
Republican lawmakers on the House Oversight and Energy and Commerce committees said that “the data collected by TikTok on U.S. users, such as browsing and search history, biometrics, location data, and other metadata, would be a massive national security risk in the hands of CCP intelligence,” reported Fox News.
European and British Authorities Begin to Investigate TikTok
Meanwhile, the British Parliament shut down its TikTok account in August after members of Parliament raised concerns about the risk that their personal data were being passed on to the CCP.
They demanded that the app should be closed until TikTok gave “credible assurances” that the CCP would not have access to their data.
TikTok is also facing a fine equivalent of $30 million in the United Kingdom for failing to protect the privacy of children using the app, reported the BBC.
The Data Protection Commission, Ireland’s privacy watchdog, is also investigating TikTok over children’s privacy and whether the app was in line with EU laws regarding personal data being sent to other countries, such as China, reported the BBC.
TikTok is the most popular social media app around the world, and has been downloaded almost 4 billion times.