The US government's concerns over the use of the TikTok app by China for espionage purposes prompted President Donald Trump to issue an executive order prohibiting Americans from using the app.
A recent report by The Intercept reveals the nature of the company's relationship with law enforcement agencies, not in China but in the United States.
Parent company ByteDance is headquartered in Beijing as the government censors social media content and maintains other forms of influence over tech companies. But a cursory look at what TikTok is doing in the US confirms that data privacy issues extend well beyond China.
And recently revealed leaks show that the information that TikTok has shared with US law enforcement authorities is estimated in dozens of cases, according to documents published on the BlueLeaks trove website, which was hacked by a person claiming a connection to the famous hacker group Anonymous and published by the group Distributed Denial of Secrets.
Experts familiar with law enforcement requests say that what TikTok collects and delivers is not much more than what companies like Amazon, Facebook or Google regularly offer, but that's because US tech companies collect and deliver a lot of information.
The documents also reveal the existence of two actors with email addresses from the ByteDance website registered with the website of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, an intelligence fusion center covering the Silicon Valley region.
The documents showed that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security actively monitored TikTok looking for information during the George Floyd protests.
The number of requests for subscriber information TikTok says it receives from law enforcement appears to be much lower than that from US tech giants, likely because police are accustomed to using data from US companies and applications in investigations.
TikTok delivered multiple IP addresses, information about devices used to register accounts, mobile phone numbers, and unique identifiers associated with platforms including Instagram, Facebook or Google if the user logged in using a media account. Social Media.
It is not clear whether these data releases were in response to orders, subpoenas, or other requests, and the company did not provide details on the grounds of user privacy.
Angel Diaz, a national security and technology expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, said all social media platforms are required by law to comply with applicable court orders requesting user information, but what they actually provide can vary widely. Companies also have the right to appeal user data requests in court, though it often does not.
The data delivered by TikTok ranges from data from influencers - who have tens of thousands of followers - to people who mainly post to their friends. One user contacted by The Intercept said they were not aware that their information had been provided to law enforcement.
Diaz said that in certain emergency situations, where mediators in good faith believe that there is a threat to someone's life or the risk of serious bodily harm, technology companies may voluntarily surrender the information to the US government without notifying the user.
"We are committed to respecting the privacy and rights of our users when complying with law enforcement requests," said Jamie Favazza, a TikTok spokesman. "We are carefully reviewing valid law enforcement requests and requesting appropriate legal documents in order to provide information for law enforcement requests," he added.
The Blue Lakes Trove documents also indicate that US federal investigators and police, some of whom are avid TikTok users, are increasingly viewing the app as a useful tool. In the early days of the George Floyd protests, law enforcement authorities used TikTok, along with Facebook, Twitter, and other social media apps, to track protests and dissent.
An FBI report released on June 2, "Civil Unrest Report May 2020," claimed that TikTok was among the apps used to promote violence. "Reports at the national level indicate that individuals are using traditional social media platforms and encrypted messaging applications to discuss potential acts of violence," the report said.
The executive order issued against Tik Tok last week is effective 45 days after it was issued. Trump appears to prefer selling the Chinese app to an American owner, with Microsoft being the first candidate. If it happened, some of the data privacy concerns regarding China might be eliminated. But the Blue Lakes documents highlight that without further restrictions in the United States on what companies can collect and hand over to investigators, there is cause for concern about any US or Chinese social media platform.