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TikTok and WeChat might raise safety problems, but Trump's knee-jerk reaction isn't the way to deal with them

01:32 CEST+02:00

Hong Kong In some of China's largest online services coming from the United States, the Great Firewall blocked several years ago, including Google (GOOGL), Facebook (FB), and Twitter (TWTR).

US President Donald Trump has given the apps 45 days to find American buyers. Trump claimed the apps pose risks to national security. He cited concerns about data privacy and censorship.

Tencent's WeChat, though, is far less popular in the US than it is at home, and its use stateside could be significantly curtailed.

Trump's moves risk further fracturing the global internet, upending families and online communities.

"What worries me is that the US is becoming China by trying to block off apps," says internet governance expert.

The two apps targeted by Trump also pose unique challenges, further muddying the issue.

Tencent has long faced accusations of censorship and surveillance. But cutting it off entirely from the US would come with its own costs

With TikTok, the privacy issues are murkier, given the app does not appear to behave that differently from its US competitors.

But the Trump administration appears to be taking a one-size-fits-all approach to Chinese-owned apps.

What we do (and don't) know about WeChat and TikTok

WeChat and TikTok are both social media applications with millions of users around the world. But they have different histories and concerns. TikTok is an app used by teenagers for sharing silly videos, so its inclusion in any conversation about national security may seem bizarre.

But Trump has accused the app of capturing "vast swaths of information from its users" Trump says the app could allow China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors.

TikTok has denied that it would share data with Beijing and says US user data isn't stored in China. The app does not collect significantly more data than rivals such as Facebook and Google, which gathers such information for targeted advertising. The extent to which WeChat collects information has long raised security concerns, as has Tencent's relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.

Cybersecurity experts have pointed to the prevalence of WeChat as a potential reason for a drop in hacking attacks on Tibetan exile community members. "Because WeChat is so embedded in the community in some ways, I don't think they need to hack systems as much as they used to,"

WeChat's owner Tencent has consistently denied spying on users. In the past, Chinese prosecutors have cited evidence retrieved from the app in cases against Muslims, dissidents, and even Communist Party members. Chinese cybersecurity laws give the government broad powers to request data from companies like Tencent.
Overdue regulation
A top Chinese diplomat accuses the US of using "gangster logic" to force TikTok to sell. She highlights Washington's own less-than-stellar record on government surveillance. Beijing isn't alone in such criticisms. Last month, the European Court of Justice ruled against a data-sharing plan between the US and the EU.

Beijing's stance comes across as somewhat ironic, given its own relationship with many Western firms, Hua isn't alone in such criticisms. Last month, the European Court of Justice ruled against a data-sharing plan between the US and the EU. Washington should not be blind to the potential threats posed by Chinese apps, says Sacks. "It's time for the US to get its own vision for internet governance," he says. The U.S. should spend more time on legislation and standards for all platforms, Sacks says.

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