Trump administration labels WeChat, TikTok ‘threats’ to national security, bans transactions with both

On grounds that they can track users, conduct corporate espionage and oppress Chinese-Americans

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United States president Donald Trump has issued two executive orders banning Chinese messaging service WeChat and made-in-China-but-only-operating-abroad social network TikTok, and labelling the two a “threat”.

The Executive Order on Addressing the Threat Posed by TikTok has the following to say about the app:

TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, including Internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search histories. This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.

The reasons advanced in the Executive Order on Addressing the Threat Posed by WeChat are as follows:

WeChat automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users. This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information. In addition, the application captures the personal and proprietary information of Chinese nationals visiting the United States, thereby allowing the Chinese Communist Party a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives.

The orders each say the United States “must take aggressive action” against each app’s owners “to protect our national security.”

That action appears to be a ban on “any transaction that is related to” either WeChat or TikTok, and the apps’ respective owners, “or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States”. It’s unclear what transactions are barred and if the intent is to stop US entities doing business with WeChat and TikTok, or preventing acquisitions, or stopping use of WeChat’s payment services.

The ban comes into force 45 days after the executive order, on September 20. Which is five days after the September 15 deadline president Trump has given Microsoft to do a deal to buy some of TikTok.

Analysis

The executive orders are a willing escalation in US/China tensions and further highlight the Trump administration’s unique governing style and the way it reduces certainty.

The escalation first: China yesterday slammed the US for its unfair treatment of Huawei, labelled the US a bully and said its domestic tech businesses are innocent of any allegations of espionage or working as agents of the Chinese Communist Party.

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The USA has thrown that back in China’s face, signalling it is unafraid of strong action and reprisals. What China does next is anyone’s guess. The Middle Kingdom would rather not lose the USA as a customer for the river of manufactured goods that flow from its factories, but can damage numerous US tech firms by unraveling their Chinese presences and partnerships

Which brings us to the way the Trump administration goes about its business and works with business, because on Sunday the president was willing to assist Microsoft do a deal to buy some of TikTok’s operations. Trump did so after a personal conversation with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, an unusual way to conduct investment policy. Four days later, Trump has told the American public that TikTok is toxic and made it plain that Microsoft only has one shot at buying the social network. Which is not quite the kind of policy steadiness that the business community generally appreciates as it seeks to create jobs and enhance shareholder value.

The criticism of TikTok and WeChat as instruments of tracking and profiling are also a little odd given that the USA has never moved to stop private entities like Facebook and Amazon doing likewise – though WeChat's surveillance and censorship of its users is particularly egregious, we note.

And then there’s this tweet from the Trump re-election campaigns former head, and now boss of data, Brad Parscale.

Yup, you read that right: Parscale says the Trump campaign has a massive data weapon that links “data, digital, TV, political, surrogates, coalitions, etc.” Meaning that what’s good for the Trump campaign is not good for the Communist Party, a position that is at least more traditional policy because Trump plans to use his Death Star in a democratic election while China’s democracy is a thin veneer for Party control. ®

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