Ashton Kutcher Warns of TikTok Threat, Former Employees Reveal Beijing’s Access to User Data

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TikTok is a threat to the United States, according to actor Ashton Kutcher, former TikTok employees, cybersecurity experts, and U.S. officials.
TikTok is a threat to the United States, according to actor Ashton Kutcher, former TikTok employees, cybersecurity experts, and U.S. officials. (Image: antonbe via Pixabay)

Hollywood celebrity Ashton Kutcher recently warned that Beijing could be using Chinese apps, including TikTok, to influence the minds of American citizens on topics such as the South China Sea and Taiwan. He conveyed his thoughts in an interview on the YouTube channel, “American Optimist,” run by entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a company headquartered in Beijing that has ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

During the interview, the 43-year-old actor predicted a “massive regulatory battle” for TikTok and pointed out that such platforms could be used to disseminate propaganda against Washington and Taipei. Constant exposure to biased content could influence American citizens to take a stronger stance against U.S. war efforts.

“If I’m China and I want to create a problem in that area of the world, specifically a naval problem in that area of the world, in the South China Sea, I would probably want to utilize TikTok in order to influence the minds of Americans in an anti-U.S. propaganda, anti-Taiwanese propaganda effort in order to make any kind of war from the United States extraordinarily unpopular,” Kutcher said on the show.

Most people believe that media manipulation and misinformation campaigns are somehow not happening “through their sources,” but the actor states that this is not the case. Kutcher expects to “face a reckoning in that particular domain,” and believes that such an event would change how social media functions in the future.

Social media, five years from now, will not be the social media that exists today, the actor claims. If social media continues on its current path, Kutcher does not want his kids to engage with those platforms. However, he says that the decision would ultimately be made by his children themselves, as they are “extraordinarily educated” about the situation.

In contrast to Kutcher’s strong stance against Chinese apps, many Hollywood celebrities are seeking to appease China. In a January 29 tweet, actress Bette Midler demanded that China pay reparations for the COVID-19 pandemic, only to delete the tweet later without an explanation. Midler is a vocal anti-Trump activist and has blamed the former president for COVID-19 deaths in America.

In May, actor John Cena apologized for calling Taiwan a country during a promotional campaign for the ninth installment in the Fast and Furious franchise. He said that Taiwan would be the first “country” to watch the new movie in an interview with Taiwanese broadcasting company TVBS.

Privacy threat

A report released by ProtonMail in July 2020 stated that TikTok was a “grave privacy threat” to user data and that the company “likely shares data with the Chinese government.” It recommended that users use the app “with great caution.”

TikTok collects the following information from every user: IP address, browsing history, mobile carrier, location data, device info, which videos are liked, which videos are shared, how long videos are watched, messages exchanged via the app, payment information, and so on.

The report warns that Chinese laws essentially make any claim of protecting user privacy impossible. “China’s National Intelligence Law, passed in 2017, allows the government to compel any Chinese company to provide practically any information it requests, including data on foreign citizens. Furthermore, Chinese laws also can force these requests to be kept secret and not disclosed via transparency reports,” it stated.

In June, CNBC published a report with interviews of former TikTok employees, who revealed concerns about TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance. One employee revealed that ByteDance employees in China are able to access U.S. user data. Indeed, TikTok’s privacy policy states that it can share information it collects “with a parent, subsidiary, or other affiliates of our corporate group.”

“If the legal authorities in China or their parent company demands the data, users have already given them the legal right to turn it over,” Bryan Cunningham, executive director of the Cybersecurity Policy & Research Institute at the University of California, Irvine, said to CNBC.

To protect the data of American citizens, former President Trump had signed executive order 13942 back on Aug. 6, 2020, to force ByteDance to sell TikTok. Another executive order signed on Aug. 14 stated that ByteDance had 90 days to sell or spin off its U.S. business. Trump stated that ByteDance’s actions threatened to “impair the national security of the United States.”

However, a U.S. court blocked Trump’s order, thereby preventing the app from being banned from app stores on Sep. 27. On Dec. 7, another court ruling prohibited the Commerce Department from imposing restrictions on TikTok. In June 2021, the Biden administration revoked the Trump ban on TikTok.

Last month, TikTok changed its privacy policy in the U.S., allowing the company to collect even more personal data and biometric information such as voiceprints and faceprints automatically.

“Generally speaking, these policy changes are very concerning… The changes are vague in a lot of ways. TikTok does not explain what it will do with this biometric information, how and when it will seek consent before taking it, and what it means by ‘faceprints and voiceprints,’ which aren’t defined,” Douglas Cuthbertson, a partner in Lieff Cabraser’s Privacy & Cybersecurity practice group, said to TIME.