TikTok battles privacy concerns and spying fears in Europe

Fame is often described as a double-edged sword, striking a delicate balance between perks and burdens, joys and sorrows, which can be equally misleading and confusing. Popularity for TikTok is proving to be a formidable challenge, threatening to bring the company down from its absolute peak.

The video-sharing app, which gained worldwide fame during the stay-at-home days of the COVID-19 pandemic and has since grown into a tech giant on par with the Silicon Valley giants, is finding itself under increasing scrutiny from legislators and policymakers. Producers and journalists around the world who are concerned about the unintended side effects of his astounding rise.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew flew to the Belgian capital this week high level meetings with several European Commissioners, including Margrethe Vestager, vice-president for the bloc’s digital agenda, and Věra Jourová, responsible for values ​​and transparency.

A European Commission spokesperson told Euronews that the meetings took place “at the company’s request” and that the European Union’s brand new twin regulations, the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA).

“We are aware of the concerns regarding the use of TikTok,” the spokesperson said.

Western regulators suspect that TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance is headquartered in Beijing, has the potential to hand over sensitive private data to the Chinese government and use its content recommendation algorithm to spread communist propaganda.

While the company has tried to vehemently dispute these allegations, a brutal series of media releases continues to fuel criticism, pushing TikTok right into the realm of national security.

Politicians from Washington to Brussels are debating how to overcome this very popular practice, which now works mostly unhindered throughout the West.

According to a short read, Věra Jourová, after meeting with Chew, “I am confident that Tiktok will fully honor its commitments to respect EU law and go the extra mile in regaining the trust of European regulators.”

“There can be no doubt that the data of users in Europe is secure and not subject to illegal access by third country authorities.”

‘zero demand’ from China

Brussels visit comes as TikTok speed up work It’s on a make-or-break deal with American regulators who can prove that user data is immune from Chinese interference. Failure to provide such vital assurance could push President Joe Biden’s administration to ban ByteDance outright or order its liquidation.

US Congress approved last month While taking a measure to exclude TikTok from electronic devices used by the federal government, Republican Senator Marco Rubio made a proposal. bipartisan bill A nationwide ban on TikTok is a radical move made in india referring to data compiled by “elements hostile to national security” more than two years ago.

Neither TikTok nor ByteDance responded to requests for comment sent by Euronews.

Inside previous statements According to media, TikTok has defended its independence from the Chinese government and insisted that its data collection practices are in line with industry standards.

“We’ve had zero data requests from the Chinese government since we started transparent reporting in 2019,” a TikTok spokesperson told the Guardian.

But despite a series of statements, high-profile meetings, public outreach and intense lobbying, privacy and espionage concerns persist on both sides of the Atlantic.

Inside privacy update Launched in early November, TikTok promised new efforts to minimize data streams outside of Europe and store data locally. Data from TikTok users in Europe, which includes the EU, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and the UK, is currently stored in the US and Singapore.

However, in the same privacy update, TikTok said certain company employees in non-continental countries would be given “remote access” to European user data, due to the need to run a “global platform designed for sharing joyful content.”

China was also included in the list of ten countries.

The company explained that employees will manage this data “based on a demonstrated need to do their jobs subject to a robust set of security controls and approval protocols”, as well as in ways that comply with the EU’s landmark General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). ).

Records of China-based employees accessing European data made international headlines, raising long-standing concerns about ByteDance and the Chinese Communist Party.

Speaking to Euronews, a European Commission spokesperson said, “With regard to TikTok’s data processing practices, we expect all companies operating in the EU to fully comply with EU data protection rules.”

Lukasz Kobus/ AB

Vera Jourová, Vice President of the European Commission, met with Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, in Brussels. – Lukasz Kobus/ AB

“It would be a serious mistake to let this happen”

As a social media network, TikTok collects all kinds of data from its more than one billion users, which could include content consumption, preferred categories, approximate location and IP address. This information is needed to feed the algorithm that powers the app and offers countless video suggestions.

Amid the geopolitical conflict between the West and China, the risk of this highly valuable and sensitive user data falling into the Chinese Communist Party’s inbox has inevitably become a growing concern for Europeans and Americans alike.

Technology has been one of the main factors fueling diplomatic tensions for years: Shenzhen-based telecommunications giant Huawei has seen market opportunities dwindle after Western countries began to dig deeper into the company’s ties to the Chinese government.

Doubts led to Sweden, Poland, Romania, Japan and Australia blocking the company from rolling out its 5G network and building critical infrastructure. United States even forbidden Sales and import of new communication equipment manufactured by Huawei, ZTE and three other Chinese companies.

A similar pattern of distrust is emerging at TikTok, which has more attractiveness and emotional attachment among its young population than any other Chinese company.

Concerns date back to 2017, when China’s President Xi Jinping’s government, which critics accused of tightening the authoritarian screws at home, passed a new law stating that “all organizations and citizens must support, assist and cooperate with national intelligence efforts.”

Most importantly, the National Intelligence Act could force Chinese companies and their subsidiaries operating “home and abroad” to hand over data to the Chinese government. if requested.

Jan Penfrat, a senior policy adviser, said: “Once personal data falls into the hands of a company operating under Chinese jurisdiction, it is in practice very difficult for the EU to prevent the subsequent transfer of that data to the Chinese government.” European Digital Rights (EDRi), a Brussels-based human rights association, told Euronews.

“We should think twice about the apps we use and try to avoid platforms with questionable data collection practices, especially companies driven by tracking ads.”

After TikTok proved to be more than just a fad, political attention abruptly shifted to a rapidly growing cache of personal data and the ever-appearing shadow of the communist party.

in September 2021The Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) has launched an investigation into GDPR compliance and transfers of personal data from Europe to China by TikTok.

Like many other tech companies, TikTok has established its European headquarters in Dublin, making the Irish agency responsible for enforcing GDPR provisions. GDPR empowers national authorities to impose heavy fines in case of non-compliance and enforced changes in corporate policy.

A final conclusion can be expected in the second half of this year, an Irish spokesperson told Euronews.

‘Everything is seen in China’

While TikTok awaits the findings from both European and American regulators, a series of media reports have added a new sense of urgency to the political conversation.

in June 2022 BuzzFeed appeared Leaked audio from internal meetings showing China-based ByteDance employees “repeatedly” accessing non-public data of American users contradicts a TikTok executive’s affidavit before the US Senate.

A member of TikTok’s Trust and Security department is reported to have said, “Everything is seen in China.”

Following the BuzzFeed report, a five-member group of the European Parliament a letter Expressing to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen fears that “huge” amounts of data on EU citizens could be intercepted by Chinese authorities.

“It would be a serious mistake to allow this to happen in a period of geopolitical repositioning for the European Union and its allies in the West,” the five far-right lawmakers said.

In your written response, von der Leyen said that under GDPR, any EU-based company “has to ensure that the level of data protection provided in the EU is not undermined” by data transfers to countries outside the 27-strong bloc. The chairman of the commission stated that this provision also applies to access to data “by public authorities in the country of destination”.

weeks later, forbes TiKTok reportedly spied on numerous journalists following ByteDance by comparing their location information with those of workers suspected of acting as confidential sources. The hacking targeting the author of the BuzzFeed report did not yield any tangible results.

The company denounced the breach and acknowledged that personal data and IP addresses were accessed by four ByteDance employees, two of whom were in the US and two in China, and were later fired after a conflict. internal investigation has been carried out.

“Public confidence that we’ve gone to great lengths to build will be significantly undermined by the abuse of a few,” Rubo Liang, CEO of ByteDance, said in an email to employees.

I believe this will be a lesson to all of us.”

This piece has been updated to include new reactions.

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