The U.S. bans on Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat are not particularly valuable to U.S. security, analysts said Friday to AFP, but could raise wider commercial pressure on Beijing and make President Donald Trump seem to be strong as he seeks reelection.
In announcing the bans — to take effect in 45 days — Trump declared Thursday that Chinese mobile apps are “threatening United States national security, foreign policy, and economy.”
Apps data collection, he claimed, “threatens to give the Chinese Communist Party access to the personal and proprietary information of Americans,” which he said could be used to spy on, blackmail, and monitor Chinese nationals inside the United States.
Yet cyber security experts say the benefits to the ban are limited, and no imminent risks are addressed.
In particular, the WeChat ban, they argue, is harming a large number of Chinese Americans, Chinese born in the US, and companies operating with China, all for whom the app is important to communications.
– ‘Data-sucking operation’-
Both apps are gathering huge amounts of data over hundreds of millions of users.
WeChat is an all-in-one platform that provides messaging, financial transfers, community messages, and social media, all of which are held on Chinese servers that Chinese intelligence uses to access a 2017 security rule.
TikTok, a simple video-making and sharing app, meanwhile mines user accounts and phones for lots of identification information.
“WeChat’s evil,” said Nicholas Weaver, a computer security lecturer at Berkeley’s University of California.
“It uses encrypted connections to WeChat ‘s servers in China … but all messages are interpreted by the servers, and the Chinese government can see any message it likes.”
But, Weaver said, if you want to communicate widely with people in China, from inside or outside the country, there are few alternatives.
“It’s really about keeping US people from communicating with friends and relatives in China by banning WeChat, which is a terrible idea.”
As for TikTok, he said, “a huge data-sucking project” is hardly different from popular social media in the US.
TikTok denies the Chinese government having provided data, and says it would not do so if asked — but Weaver is doubtful of that assertion.
“Naturally, the Chinese government can access that information just like the US government can access any Facebook-collected information.”
None of that poses a specific safety risk if people are aware of it, Weaver said.
“The best approach,” he said, “is not blanket bans but better policy and communication: communicate what the risks are to US industry, and customize government systems to avoid the risks.”
“It is so simply a problem for politics and not defense,” Weaver said.
“The real threats to security — and they are real — are better handled, and have been addressed much quieter,” he said.
-Tough on China-
As U.S. intelligence said Friday that China opposes Trump’s November reelection, analysts saw the bans as motivated, at least in part, by the intention of the U.S. leader to demonstrate that he is taking a hard line on Beijing.
Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that because of the security risk, neither WeChat nor TikTok should be on government officials’ telephones — the argument invoked by the Republican-led Senate when voting to bar TikTok from the phones of government employees.
But a blanket ban “doesn’t strike me as an essential action to enhance US cybersecurity,” said Segal.
Trump’s motive “seems to be motivated both by a sense of technical rivalry with the Chinese and by his desire to show that in the run-up to the election he is being tough on China.”
Segal acknowledged the Trump administration is not sure what it wants of Beijing.
“We have set out very clearly that we will compete with China and we need to push back,” he said.
“But it’s not obvious what China should be doing, or what actions we want to see.”