US bans on Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat are not particularly valuable to US security, experts told AFP on Friday, but they could increase commercial pressure on Beijing and help President Donald Trump appear tough as he seeks re-election.
In announcing the bans, which will take effect in 45 days, Trump declared Thursday that Chinese mobile apps “threaten the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States.”
The apps ‘collection of data, he argued, “threatens to allow the Communist Party of China to access Americans’ personal and proprietary information,” which he said could be used for espionage, blackmail and to track down Americans. Chinese citizens within the US
But cybersecurity specialists say the benefits of the ban are minimal and do not solve any immediate threats.
Banning WeChat especially, they say, actually hurts a large number of Chinese-Americans, US-based Chinese, and companies that work with China, all for whom the app is essential for communications.
– “Data suction operation” –
Both applications collect vast amounts of data on hundreds of millions of users.
WeChat, an all-in-one tool, provides messaging, financial transactions, group chats, and social media, all of which are stored on Chinese servers that, according to the 2017 security law, must be accessible to Chinese intelligence.
TikTok, a simple app for creating and sharing short videos, meanwhile, pulls users’ accounts and phones to get lots of identifying information.
“WeChat is bad,” said Nicholas Weaver, a professor of computer security at the University of California at Berkeley.
“It uses encrypted links to the WeChat servers in China … but the servers see all the messages, so the Chinese government can see any message it wants,” he said.
However, Weaver said, there are few alternatives if you want to communicate widely with people in China, from within or outside the country.
“So by banning WeChat, it’s really about preventing American people from being able to communicate with friends and relatives in China, which is a terrible idea.”
As for TikTok, it’s not much different from popular US social media, he said, “a massive data-sucking operation.”
TikTok denies providing data to the Chinese government and says it would not do so if asked, but Weaver doubts that claim.
“Of course, the Chinese government can access that information, just as the US government can access any information collected by Facebook.”
None of that constitutes a particular security risk if people know about it, Weaver said.
The best approach, he said, “is not blanket bans, but better policy and communication: communicate to US businesses what the risks are and configure government systems to avoid the risks.”
“This is clearly a political concern rather than a security concern,” Weaver said.
“The real threats to security, and they are real, are better addressed and have been addressed much more quietly,” he said.
– Tough with China –
As US intelligence said on Friday that China opposes Trump’s re-election in November, analysts saw the bans motivated, at least in part, by the US leader’s desire to show that he is taking a hard line with Beijing.
Adam Segal, director of the Council on Foreign Relations ‘Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program, said that neither WeChat nor TikTok should be on government officials’ phones because of the security risk, the argument invoked by the Republican-led Senate when vote to ban TikTok from the phones of government employees.
But a blanket ban “doesn’t strike me as an essential action to increase America’s cyber security,” Segal said.
Trump’s motivation “appears to be driven both by a sense of technological competition with the Chinese and by his desire to show that he is being tough on China in the run-up to the elections.”
Segal noted that the Trump administration does not say what it expects from Beijing.
“They have made it very clear that we are going to compete with China and that we have to back off,” he said.
“But it is not clear what China is supposed to do or what behaviors we want to see.”