WASHINGTON – Officials said Wednesday that the White House has cancelled Trump-era executive orders designed to prohibit the popular apps TikTok and WeChat and would instead undertake its own study targeted at detecting national security issues with software related to China.
A new presidential order requires the Commerce Department to conduct an “evidence-based” investigation of transactions using applications created, supplied, or controlled by China, according to officials. Officials are especially worried about applications that collect personal information from users or have ties to the Chinese military or intelligence activity.
The Biden administration has yet to weigh in on whether TikTok and other applications constitute a threat to Americans, despite cancelling some of President Donald Trump’s blanket-style directives and replacing them with a more targeted approach.
However, a senior administration official said Wednesday that Trump’s measures weren’t necessarily “done in the most sound manner,” and that the review’s goal is to establish clear standards for assessing particular data security and privacy threats for each app. According to him, this might lead to a variety of future app-by-app behaviours.
He stated, “We want to take a customised, harsh approach here.”
According to top administration officials, the agency will also provide suggestions on how to better safeguard Americans’ genetic and personal health information, as well as address the hazards of particular software products linked to China or other enemies.
Courts halted the Trump administration’s attempted prohibitions, and they also “came up against this criticism that they were emulating China’s Great Firewall,” according to Samm Sacks, a fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. “What the Biden administration wants to do is keep the internet free and safe while still addressing actual risk.”
The decision by the Biden administration underscores continued concerns that popular applications linked to China, a major economic and political competitor of the United States, may expose Americans’ personal information. Beijing’s technological progress has been addressed by both the White House and Congress.
Last Monday, the Biden administration added to a Trump-era list of Chinese enterprises that Americans are prohibited from investing in due to alleged ties to the Chinese military and surveillance. China’s state-owned telecoms businesses, Huawei, and China’s oil business China National Offshore Oil Corp are among the firms on the list.
In the face of increased foreign competition, the Senate enacted a bill on Tuesday that aims to promote U.S. semiconductor production and the development of artificial intelligence and other technology. The measure also prohibits the use of Chinese-made drones by the federal government.
The new executive order, rather than targeting specific companies, should lead to a framework for protecting Americans’ data from China and could put pressure on Congress to pass a data-security law in the coming years, according to Paul Triolo, a tech policy expert at the Eurasia Group consultancy.
On Wednesday, Biden also overturned a January Trump directive that had barred transactions using digital wallets Alipay and WeChat Pay, as well as six lesser-known Chinese applications, due to undisclosed data security concerns.
Last year, the Trump administration’s attempt to prohibit TikTok, a popular video app among young people and the flagship WeChat messaging service were thwarted by the courts. However, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, is conducting a national-security investigation of TikTok. TikTok was supposed to sell its U.S. businesses by a certain date stipulated by CFIUS, but it never happened.
On national security concerns, the Trump administration arranged a deal last year that would have seen US businesses Oracle and Walmart purchase a substantial share in the app. On Wednesday, Oracle did not respond to calls for comment. Walmart has declined to comment on the matter.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration attempted to postpone its legal defence of Trump’s plans to ban TikTok and WeChat while it examined national security dangers presented by Chinese Internet businesses. A case contesting Trump’s TikTok divestment order has been placed on hold by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Citizen Lab, an internet watchdog group, published cybersecurity and privacy analysis of TikTok in March, which found no evidence of malicious behaviour and said TikTok’s practises of collecting personal data and tracking users’ behaviour were no worse than those of other major social platforms like Facebook.
According to the study, “our study demonstrates that TikTok does not send overt data to the Chinese government.” It went on to say that while TikTok’s service did not make contact with any Chinese servers, it was theoretically feasible that servers outside China may eventually transmit user data to Chinese servers.
Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, also described a “plausible” but speculative scenario in which the Chinese government could use one of its national security laws to compel TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, to hand over user data, but claimed there is no evidence China has done so yet.