Beyond TikTok: Who else might President Trump ban?
TikTok’s time in the United States may be up, with President Trump and other senior officials talking about an impending ban.
But other Chinese-owned apps and software-based services may also be targeted.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that some of the Asian nation’s tech companies “were providing data directly to the Chinese Communist Party.”
So who else is at risk?
The most obvious target is Tencent’s WeChat, which was the only product Mr. Pompeo called by name besides TikTok.
WeChat is sometimes described as a social network, but it really is so much more – it offers ways to make payments, run additional mini-programs, find dates and get news, as well as messaging and other social activities.
Perhaps it’s best to think of it as some sort of secondary operating system found on iOS or Android.
It is also considered to be a key tool in China’s domestic surveillance apparatus, requiring local users who have been accused of spreading malicious rumors to register a face scan and voiceprint.
But in addition, it is allegedly commonly used by the Chinese Communist Party to pump propaganda to the Chinese diaspora.
A seminar held earlier this year by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank discussed how groups within the app would be used to recommend vacation destinations, restaurants and the like on a daily basis, but then move on. the dissemination of political messages in line with Beijing’s thinking in critical moments.
Meanwhile, a recent study by security researchers from Canada’s Citizen Lab detailed how documents and images transmitted between non-Chinese registered users were screened for content that Chinese authorities would have considered politically sensitive. It did not detect that anyone was being blocked, but rather suggested that the collected data was being used to refine censorship efforts within China itself.
Tencent previously said that all content shared between WeChat international users remains private.
India could give a hint as to what other Chinese apps might be blocked.
The South Asian country recently banned 59 apps linked to China because they threatened its “sovereignty and security”. TikTok and WeChat were on the list and other big names included:
- Baidu Maps and Baidu Translate: rival Google products from the leading Chinese search provider
- Weibo – the Twitter-like microblogging service
- Clash of Kings and Mobile Legends Bang Bang – two video games
- CamScanner: a product for scanning documents
- QQMail: an email and file transfer service
The BBC reached out to several affected apps for comment but received no response.
India and China are engaged in a long dispute over their border.
But one expert suggested that a desire to help internal software developers, rather than “real security issues,” may have been a factor in making the decision.
“What they are definitely trying to point out is that India has had enough of China and wants to disconnect,” commented Gareth Price, senior researcher at London’s Chatham House think tank.
In any case, Delhi may only be at the beginning.
According to local reports, the government is considering banning another 275 apps, some of which may be more familiar to a US audience, including:
- AliExpress, a shopping app from Chinese online retail giant Alibaba
- Video Games by NetEase, which publishes several Marvel superhero titles among others
- Titles from Tencent Games, including Player Unknown Battlegrounds (PUBG) Mobile
- Various Mi-branded apps from mobile phone manufacturer Xiaomi
The Indian press has suggested that Finnish Supercell – developer of the Clash of Clans video game – could also be banned in India, on the grounds that Tencent has a large stake in the business.
If the US follows that line of attack, League of Legends publisher Riot Games and Fortnite producer Epic Games may also have cause for concern.
Mr Pompeo also suggested that the software that collects facial recognition patterns is a concern.
Although I have not mentioned any products by name, there are many Chinese companies that produce such products.
The Kwai social network and the YouCam Makeup beauty app both use facial recognition algorithms and are among the Chinese apps banned from India.
It should be noted that US restrictions on Chinese businesses are not entirely new.
Over the past year or so, the Trump administration has added dozens of Chinese companies to economic blacklists, which restrict those companies from buying US technology without government approval.
Among those recently added are:
- Qihoo 360, a cybersecurity company
- NetPosa Technologies, which manufactures video recording devices
- CloudMinds, a provider of internet-based tools for robot control
- iFlyTek, a speech recognition service provider
- Megvii and Sensetime, two suppliers of facial recognition tools
China responded by saying it was strongly opposed to the move.
“We urge the United States to correct its mistakes,” a foreign ministry spokesman said at the time.
Zoom is another service that you may have doubts about.
The video chat service was founded by Chinese entrepreneur Eric Yuan. He faced criticism for “mistakenly” routing some calls via China-based computer servers in the past, as well as closing accounts that had hosted events critical to the Chinese government but were based elsewhere.
The company just announced that it will stop offering its service directly to China-based users and instead provide it through local partners.
“We have informed our customers that this will take effect on August 23,” reads a statement.
The timing may be a coincidence, but the move shows that tech companies may be cautious about giving the US any reason to doubt its loyalty in the future.