President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign pushed ads on Facebook this weekend that accuse the Chinese video app TikTok of spying on Americans.
“TikTok is spying on you,” the ads declare, and links to a survey and Trump campaign mailing-list sign-up asking if TikTok should be banned in the United States.
TikTok, owned by a Chinese company and popular with young Americans, has become a focal point in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
The Trump campaign ads appear to be referring to research from a company called Mysk that found earlier this year TikTok and other apps, including the apps of some American news organizations, accessing the contents of iPhone users’ clipboards.
Clipboards is where iPhones store data on text that is copied (part of the copy and paste feature). This information could be particularly sensitive as some users copy and paste passwords for different services.
The ads prompted a stinging rebuke of Facebook from TikTok on Sunday.
“We get that election rhetoric gets heated, which is why we don’t accept political ads on our platform. What’s more interesting is that Facebook is taking money for a political ad that attacks a competitor just as it’s preparing to launch a TikTok copycat,” a TikTok spokesperson told CNN
Facebook announced Friday it was launching a TikTok competition globally.
Roland Cloutier, TikTok’s chief information security officer, sought to reassure the app’s users in a blog post at the end of June. Cloutier said there are “many legitimate reasons” why apps access clipboard data.
“In this case, we had been working to address the problem of spam and incidents where users sometimes post the same comments on hundreds of videos. Our technology allowed us to identify users who were copying comments and placing them over and over in the comment section for different videos. We took this as a signal that the user had an agenda, such as promoting themselves to gain followers, or trolling other users,” he wrote.
He said data gathered as part of the anti-spam program did not leave a user’s device. Nevertheless, Cloutier said in the blog post the company would remove the feature.
Mysk, the group that exposed the clipboard issue, tweeted Saturday, “Trump campaign is using our clipboard research for a political gain. This is sad.” They also pointed out that it was not only TikTok which had been accessing clipboards.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US was considering banning TikTok, citing security concerns.
He said that people should only download the app “if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”
“TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy here in the US,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement following Pompeo’s comments. “We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
It’s not the Trump campaign’s first brush with the app.
In June, TikTok users sought to troll Trump’s campaign by falsely registering to attend his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.