Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Tadashi Narabayashi

【#711(Special)】Potential Threats of Chinese IT Companies

Tadashi Narabayashi / 2020.08.19 (Wed)

August 17, 2020

On August 14, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered Chinese information technology company ByteDance to sell the U.S. operations of its TikTok short-form video app within 90 days. The U.S. president is authorized to block corporate merger and acquisition deals or order the sale of business operations according to recommendations by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. that screens foreign investment in the United States from the viewpoint of national security. The latest order by President Trump is an official demand based on this authorization. U.S. software company Microsoft has offered to acquire the TikTok service in the U.S. Behind the order is a national security concern that personal information collected through TikTok could be leaked to the Chinese government.

TikTok collecting user information without consent

In Japan, the YouTube video-sharing service has diffused. In September 2019, students from Taiwan, which still bans food imports from five Japanese prefectures including Fukushima known for the March 2011 nuclear power station accident, visited Japan, used radiation meters to measure radiation in fluke caught in Fukushima Prefecture and found that radiation levels were below measurable limits. They then uploaded the video footage of the experience to YouTube in Taiwan.

TikTok can be used for the same purpose. In a 2018 download ranking in Japan, TikTok ranked first, outdoing the LINE communications app and the GoogleMap service.

On August 11, The Wall Street Journal in its web edition reported that TikTok collected media access control (MAC) addresses of smartphones powered by Google’s Android operating system to track users’ information. The practice done without users’ consent might have run counter to Google rules. A MAC address amounts to an identification number of an IT device. TikTok terminated the collection of MAC addresses in November last year. Nevertheless, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warns that TikTok users’ personal information could be transferred to the Chinese government.

Risks behind convenient Zoom

The Zoom video conference system, which has rapidly diffused in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, has been developed by a U.S. company started up by Eric Yuan, a Chinese-born U.S. citizen. A Zoom video conference on the 1989 Tiananmen Square military crackdown on pro-democracy protests was shut down, with three sponsors’ accounts suspended, under pressure from the Chinese government, according to Zoom.

A Zoom development site is located in China along with some Zoom servers, having indicated that conferences using Zoom might be vulnerable to tapping. Although Zoom has explained that security problems have been quickly improved, video conferences such as using ultrafine pictures could be tapped by China, leading trade secrets to be stolen.

Japan should make more efforts to enhance information security and develop world-leading IT software. The world is amidst the U.S.-China information war.

Tadashi Narabayashi is a professor emeritus at Hokkaido University and a director at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.