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US Said to Probe Allegations TikTok Violated Children’s Privacy

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By Reuters | Updated: 8 July 2020

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.

The development is the latest bump in the road for the short video company, which is popular with teens. TikTok has seen scrutiny, including from the national security-focused Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, rise sharply because of its Chinese parent corporation.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that the United States is “certainly looking at” banning TikTok, suggesting it shared information with the Chinese government, a charge it denied.

A staffer in a Massachusetts tech policy group and another source said they took part in separate conference calls with the 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.

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.

TikTok has grown increasing popular among U.S. teenagers and allows users to create short videos. About 60 percent of TikTok’s 26.5 million monthly active users in the United States are aged 16 to 24, the company said last year.

US lawmakers have also raised national security concerns over TikTok’s handling of user data, saying they were worried about Chinese laws requiring domestic companies support and cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party.

TikTok, owned by parent company ByteDance, is one of several China-based firms that have had to navigate heightened U.S.-China tensions over trade, technology and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under intense US regulatory scrutiny, it has poached Disney’s Kevin Mayer to be its chief executive and is trying to project a more global image, with offices in California, Singapore and elsewhere.


© Thomson Reuters 2020

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WeChat, Signal US Downloads Spike After Trump Threatens Ban: Sensor Tower

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By Reuters | Updated: 14 August 2020

More users in the United States downloaded chat app WeChat and its encrypted alternative Signal, after President Donald Trump threatened to ban WeChat, owned by Chinese company Tencent, according to Sensor Tower data shared with Reuters on Thursday.

WeChat users in the United States rushed to install the app before it could disappear from the app stores. Others, especially in China, sought alternatives like the encrypted Signal, owned by non-profit Signal Foundation.

WeChat app downloads in the United States rose 41 percent in a six-day average from the week prior to the US ban announced last Thursday, according to Sensor Tower. Signal app downloads in US and China app stores separately jumped by 30 percent and 90 percent.

“Not only are alternatives like WhatsApp and Telegram officially blocked in China, but Signal has an inherent advantage in that it’s well known for being strongly encrypted,” Stephanie Chan, Mobile Insights Strategist at Sensor Tower told Reuters. Signal did not immediately respond to request for comment.

WeChat users have also turned to another Tencent-owned chat app, QQ, as the ban did not specifically cover this product. Its downloads in the United States have tripled in the past week, Sensor Tower data showed.

Some Chinese immigrants and expats worry losing access to the popular WeChat could cut off contact with family and friends in China, where most popular US instant messaging apps including Facebook, Whatsapp, and Telegram have been blocked by the Chinese government’s Great Firewall.

It was unclear how the administration could implement the ban on WeChat in mid-September. It could order Apple and Alphabet’s Google to remove WeChat from their app store, or order the apps to stop offering access or updates to US users.

Some users said they planned to access WeChat in the United States using a virtual private network (VPN), a common tool people in China use to hide IP address to evade government restrictions.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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TikTok and Its Employees Prepare to Fight Trump Over App Ban

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By Associated Press | Updated: 14 August 2020

TikTok and its US employees are planning to take President Donald Trump’s administration to court over his sweeping order to ban the popular video app, according to a lawyer preparing one of the lawsuits.

The employees’ legal challenge to Trump’s executive order will be separate from a pending lawsuit from the company that owns the app, though both will argue that the order is unconstitutional, said Mike Godwin, an internet policy lawyer representing the employees.

Trump last week ordered sweeping but vague bans on dealings with the Chinese owners of TikTok and messaging app WeChat, saying they are a threat to US national security, foreign policy and the economy. The TikTok order would take effect in September, but it remains unclear what it will mean for the apps’ 100 million US users, many of them teenagers or young adults who use it to post and watch short-form videos.

It’s also unclear if it will make it illegal for TikTok to pay its roughly 1,500 workers in the US, which is why some of them came to Godwin for help, he said. The order would prohibit “any transaction by any person” with TikTok and its Chinese parent company ByteDance.

“Employees correctly recognize that their jobs are in danger and their payment is in danger right now,” Godwin said.

TikTok said in a statement last week that it was “shocked by the recent Executive Order, which was issued without any due process.” It declined to comment Thursday on whether it is pursuing its own lawsuit.

“We have no involvement with and are not coordinating on” the employee-led initiative, said TikTok spokeswoman Hilary McQuaide said via email. “We respect the rights of employees to engage in concerted activity to seek due process of law.”

The Fifth and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution safeguard life, liberty and property from arbitrary government action lacking “due process of law.”

Microsoft is in talks to buy parts of TikTok, in a potential sale that’s being forced under Trump’s threat of a ban.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended Trump’s TikTok and WeChat orders Thursday, telling reporters he was exercising his emergency authority under a 1977 law enabling the president to regulate international commerce to address unusual threats.

“The administration is committed to protecting the American people from all cyber threats and these apps collect significant amounts of private data on users,” said McEnany, adding that the Chinese government can access and use such data.

TikTok said it spent nearly a year trying to engage in “good faith” with the US government to address these concerns.

“What we encountered instead was that the Administration paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses,” the company’s statement said.

Godwin said he was retained by Patrick Ryan, who joined TikTok from Google earlier this year as a technical program manager. Ryan posted a public fundraising pitch on GoFundMe this week to raise money for attorneys who can “fight this unconstitutional taking.”

“This is unprecedented,” Ryan wrote. “And it’s frankly really uncool.”

Unlike other Chinese tech companies targeted by Trump, such as telecom giant Huawei, TikTok’s widespread popularity among Americans adds a layer of complexity to its legal and political challenges. The looming ban has annoyed TikTok users, some of them Trump supporters like Pam Graef of Metairie, Louisiana.

The 53-year-old fitness instructor found nearly instant TikTok fame after downloading the app this summer and posting a video of herself dancing frenetically in a kitchen as someone pretending to be her embarrassed daughter shouts that she’s doing it wrong. The video has nearly 3.5 million views.

“I don’t want it to be banned. It’s just a blast,” Graef said. “It’s a way for me to promote my virtual training and virtual classes.”

She said Trump won’t lose her vote over this, but she doesn’t understand all the fuss about the app’s Chinese ownership. “What are they gaining by spying on us?” Graef said. “We’re just doing stupid videos and having fun.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that, until late last year, the TikTok app was able to track users of Android phones without their consent by collecting unique phone identifiers in a way that skirted privacy safeguards set by Google. TikTok responded that the technique it used is a common way to prevent fraud and said it no longer collects the unique identifier.

The company has repeatedly said that the way it collects data is typical for thousands of mobile apps. “We have made clear that TikTok has never shared user data with the Chinese government, nor censored content at its request,” said its statement last week.

Trump’s actions follow the lead of India, which has expressed similar security concerns and earlier this summer banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps amid a military standoff between the two countries.

Godwin said the employees’ legal challenge will be focused on worker rights, not on the national security claims underlying Trump’s order.

The civil rights lawyer, known in early internet culture for coining “Godwin’s law,” which posits that all online debates will eventually devolve into the use of Nazi analogies, said employees can’t afford to wait.

“We have to proceed very quickly,” he said Thursday. “If we wait around for the order to be enforced, which it will be on September 20, then the workers will lose their chances to be paid.”

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TikTok Parent ByteDance in Early Talks With Reliance Industries to Invest in Video App: Report

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By Reuters | Updated: 13 August 2020

China’s ByteDance is in early talks with Reliance Industries for an investment in its video-based app TikTok’s business in India, TechCrunch reported on Thursday, citing sources.

The two companies began conversations late last month and have not reached a deal yet, according to the report.

Reliance, ByteDance, and TikTok did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

The Indian government in June banned 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok and WeChat, for threatening its “sovereignty and integrity” after border tensions with China.

Last week, US President Donald Trump unveiled bans on US transactions with the China-based owners of messaging app WeChat and TikTok, escalating tensions between the two countries.

Microsoft has been in talks to acquire the US operations of the video-sharing app.

Social media platform Twitter has also expressed interest in having a deal with TikTok, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters late last week.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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TikTok’s US Ban Could Cut It Off From App Stores, Advertisers: White House Document

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By Reuters | Updated: 12 August 2020

President Donald Trump’s executive order banning China’s TikTok could prevent US app stores from offering the popular short-video app and make advertising on the platform illegal, according to a White House document seen by Reuters.

Trump signed an order last week prohibiting transactions with TikTok if its parent ByteDance does not reach a deal to divest it in 45 days. It did not specify the scope of the ban, stating only that the US Department of Commerce would define which transactions would be barred at the end of the 45-day period.

The White House document, sent out to supporters last week, provides insight into the Trump administration’s thinking. It shows the US government is considering disrupting key aspects of TikTok’s operations and funding, amid concerns over the safety of personal data that the app handles.

“Prohibited transactions may include, for example, agreements to make the TikTok app available on app stores… purchasing advertising on TikTok, and accepting terms of service to download the TikTok app onto a user device,” the document states.

A source familiar with the White House document verified its authenticity. TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some technology industry experts said eliminating TikTok’s ability to be offered on Apple and Google owner Alphabet’s app stores, which in turn allow it to be downloaded on iPhone and Android smartphones, could cripple the app’s growth.

“That kills TikTok in the US,” said James Lewis, a cyber-security expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If they want to grow, these rules are a huge obstacle.”

He added, though, that the US government may not be able to prevent Americans from downloading TikTok from foreign websites.

Apple and Alphabet did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Following Trump’s executive order last week, TikTok told advertisers it would continue to honor planned ad campaigns, refund any that it cannot fulfill, and work with major influencers to migrate to other platforms in the event of a ban. Some advertisers told Reuters they were drafting contingency plans and considering other apps for their marketing.

It is not clear whether Trump’s order will be implemented. Microsoft has been leading negotiations to acquire the North America, Australia, and New Zealand operations of TikTok under the supervision of the Trump administration. A successful deal would make banning transactions with TikTok moot.

The White House document seen by Reuters is not clear on whether the United States would implement a similar crackdown on WeChat, the social media app owned by China’s Tencent Holdings that Trump also sought to ban in an executive order on last week.

TikTok, which has said is exploring legal challenges to Trump’s order, has 100 million active users in the United States, and is especially popular with teenagers. It has said US user data is safely stored in the United States and Singapore, and that it would not hand over such information to the Chinese government.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Google Turns Android Phones Into Earthquake Detectors

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By Reuters | Updated: 12 August 2020

Alphabet’s Google’s Android phones on Tuesday started detecting earthquakes around the world to provide data that could eventually give billions of users precious seconds of warning of a tremor nearby, with an alerting feature first rolling out in California.

Japan, Mexico, and California already use land-based sensors to generate warnings, aiming to cut injuries and property damage by giving people further away from the epicenter of an earthquake seconds to protect themselves before the shaking starts.

If Google’s approaches for detecting and alerting prove effective, warnings would reach more people, including for the first time Indonesia and other developing countries with few traditional sensors.

Earthquake alerts, now part of Android

Seismology experts consulted by Google said turning smartphones into mini-seismographs marked a major advancement, despite the inevitably of erroneous alerts from a work in progress, and the reliance on a private company’s algorithms for public safety. More than 2.5 billion devices, including some tablets, run Google’s Android operating system.

“We are on a path to delivering earthquake alerts wherever there are smartphones,” said Richard Allen, director of University of California Berkeley’s seismological lab and visiting faculty at Google over the last year.

Google’s program emerged from a week-long session 4-1/2 years ago to test whether the accelerometers in phones could detect car crashes, earthquakes, and tornadoes, said principal software engineer Marc Stogaitis.

Accelerometers – sensors that measure direction and force of motion – are mainly used to determine whether a user is holding a phone in landscape or portrait mode.

The company studied historical accelerometer readings during earthquakes and found they could give some users up to a minute of notice.

Android phones can currently separate earthquakes from vibrations caused by thunder or the device dropping only when the device is charging, stationary, and has user permission to share data with Google.

If phones detect an earthquake, they send their city-level location to Google, which can triangulate the epicenter and estimate the magnitude with as few as several hundred reports, Stogaitis said.

The system will not work in regions including China where Google’s Play Services software is blocked.

Google expects to issue its first alerts based on accelerometer readings next year. It also plans to feed alerts for free to businesses that want to automatically shut off elevators, gas lines, and other systems before the shaking starts.

To test its alerting abilities, Google is drawing in California from traditional government seismograph readings to alert Android users about earthquakes, similar to notifications about kidnappings or flooding.

People expected to experience strong shaking would hear a loud dinging and see a full-screen advisement to drop, cover, and hold on, Stogaitis said. Those further away would get a smaller notification designed not to stir them from their sleep, while people too close to be warned will get information about post-quake safety, such as checking gas valves.

Alerts will trigger for earthquakes magnitude 4.5 or greater, and no app download is necessary.

MyShake, an app launched by Allen’s Berkeley lab last year to provide Californians warnings and let them report damage, has drawn 1 million downloads.

Stogaitis also said Google has not discussed its plans with Apple, whose competitor to Android comprises half the market in countries including the United States.

Apple was not immediately available for comment.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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TikTok Faces Preliminary Investigation by French Data Privacy Watchdog CNIL

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By Reuters | Updated: 11 August 2020

France’s data privacy watchdog CNIL said on Tuesday that it has opened a preliminary investigation into Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok after it received a complaint.

TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, is already under investigation over privacy concerns by US, European Union and Dutch authorities.

“A complaint about TikTok was received in May. This complaint is now under investigation,” a CNIL spokesman said, confirming a Bloomberg report.

He declined to elaborate on the nature of the complaint or the identity of the complainant.

Asked for comment, TikTok said: “Protecting TikTok users’ privacy and safety is our top priority. We are aware of the investigation by the CNIL and are fully cooperating with them.”

In the United States, officials have said that TikTok poses a national security risk because of the personal data it handles.

President Donald Trump has threatened to ban TikTok and has given ByteDance 45 days to negotiate a sale of TikTok’s US operations to Microsoft.

In June, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) said it would set up a task force to assess TikTok’s activities across the bloc after a request from an EU lawmaker concerned about its data collection methods and security and privacy risks.

In May, the Dutch privacy watchdog said it would investigate how TikTok handles the data of millions of young users.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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