House Democrat presses Google, Apple to increase transparency around foreign-owned apps

House Democrat presses Google, Apple to increase transparency around foreign-owned apps
© Greg Nash

Rep. Stephen LynchStephen Francis LynchLawmakers seek answers on armed services' plans to address gun tracking Left warns Pelosi they'll take down Biden infrastructure bill Pelosi signals she won't move .5T bill without Senate-House deal MORE (D-Mass.) on Tuesday urged Google and Apple to be more transparent with customers about the potential data privacy dangers of foreign-made apps.

Lynch, who serves as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s national security subcommittee, reached out to the companies following statements from the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) that foreign-made apps could pose a danger to consumers.

“We remain concerned that mobile applications owned or operated by foreign developers, or that store the user data of U.S. citizens overseas, could enable our adversaries to access significant quantities of potentially sensitive information on American citizens without their knowledge to the detriment of U.S. national security,” Lynch wrote in letters to Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Apple CEO Tim Cook. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Lynch previously wrote to the FBI and the ODNI in February raising concerns around foreign-made and controlled apps.

The FBI responded to Lynch earlier this month, stating in a letter that “if users voluntarily provide information to a mobile application that is based in a foreign country or that stores information in a foreign country, the information is subject to the respective foreign country's laws, which may allow its acquisition by that country's government.”

The ODNI backed up concerns around U.S. data used by foreign-made apps, writing in a separate response to Lynch this month that foreign mobile apps do present a security risk.

“Mobile applications developed, operated or owned by foreign entities present a potential national security risk because developers can deliberately code kill switches, backdoors or vulnerable data streams into mobile applications that allow access to the application’s software, application-generated data, or even—in some cases—the device itself,” the ODNI wrote to Lynch. 

As a result of the concerns from the intelligence agencies, Lynch asked Google and Apple to commit to requiring app developers to disclose the countries where user data is stored, make this information available to customers considering downloading the app, and also asked whether the companies would consider further changes to protect data privacy.

“At a minimum, Google should take steps to ensure that users are aware of the potential privacy and national security risks of sharing sensitive information with applications that store data in countries adversarial to the United States, or whose developers are subsidiaries of overseas companies,” Lynch wrote to Pichai, with similar comments made to Cook. 

Both Google and Apple did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment on Lynch’s letters sent Tuesday. 

Lynch is not alone in his concerns over foreign owned and controlled apps. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoHillicon Valley — TikTok, Snapchat seek to distance themselves from Facebook State: US 'strongly opposes' Israeli settlement expansion Lawmakers praise upcoming establishment of cyber bureau at State MORE said the Trump administration is considering banning Chinese social media apps including video app TikTok due to data collection concerns. This move came on the heels of India banning TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps following geopolitical tensions between the two countries.