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Hillicon Valley: Trump's ban on TikTok, WeChat in spotlight | NASA targeted by foreign hackers | Instagram accused of spying in lawsuit

Hillicon Valley: Trump's ban on TikTok, WeChat in spotlight | NASA targeted by foreign hackers | Instagram accused of spying in lawsuit
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Welcome to Hillicon Valley, The Hill's newsletter detailing all you need to know about the tech and cyber news from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley. If you don’t already, be sure to sign up for our newsletter with this LINK.

Welcome! Follow our cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and tech reporter, Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills), for more coverage.

ALL ABOUT TIKTOK: The Trump administration announced Friday that it will ban WeChat and TikTok from U.S. app stores starting Sunday.

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The order is a significant escalation against the two Chinese-owned apps that have massive user bases in the U.S.

WeChat users will also be banned from transferring funds and processing payments through the messaging apps starting Sunday.

The Commerce Department restrictions will also bar companies from providing internet hosting, content delivery networks or peering services for WeChat or use any of the app's code, functions or services within the U.S. as of Sunday. The same restrictions will apply to TikTok starting Nov. 12.

While WeChat users will be unable to access the app after this weekend, TikTok will be usable at least up until the November deadline if it is downloaded before Sunday. However, TikTok will be unable to update its application in that time frame.

Read more about the breaking news here.

Reaction from users and legal groups: The Commerce Department’s decision to block downloads of TikTok and WeChat starting Sunday is sure to meet strong pushback from users.

TikTok is one of the most popular social media apps in the world and WeChat is used widely for international messaging.

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While TikTok appears to be safe until after the election based on the administration's announcement Friday, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE could still face backlash from young voters.

According to marketing intelligence group SensorTower, TikTok has been downloaded by first-time users in the U.S. 64 million times this year, roughly double the amount it was downloaded last year, while WeChat has been downloaded by U.S. users 22 million times since 2014.

In the wake of the Friday orders, SensorTower reported that WeChat downloads had surged to make it the 100th most downloaded app in the United States on Friday.

Privacy and civil rights groups have also blasted the administration's move.

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Security Project, described the move as a violation of the First Amendment.

“The order also harms the privacy and security of millions of existing TikTok and WeChat users in the United States by blocking software updates, which can fix vulnerabilities and make the apps more secure," Shamsi noted in a statement.

Jameel Jaffer, executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, also pointed to First Amendment concerns.

“The privacy and security concerns with platforms like TikTok and WeChat are real, but we should be wary of setting a precedent that would give this president, and every future one, broad power to interfere with Americans’ access to information and ideas from abroad,” Jaffer said. 

But pushing a case based on violating the First Amendment may not be easy, Brian Flemming, a former counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department, told The Hill, pointing to the decision by the Commerce Department to exclude the use of TikTok to exchange personal or business information.

“Given that they carved out users that potentially have the greatest interest and ability in using these apps, that might make it difficult for a successful challenge to come, I think it’s going to be a difficult challenge to bring,” Fleming, who currently is a member of law firm Miller and Chevalier Chartered, said. 

A ripple effect?: While concerns around TikTok mostly stem from its ties to China, some argued Friday that the moves by the Trump administration could have longer-term negative effects on other major social media groups. 

“The executive orders could be a template for the Europeans, just strikeout TikTok and put in Facebook, it’s a solution for how to control access to a third party app that you don’t like,” James Lewis, director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Hill.

A spokesperson for Facebook declined to comment on the Commerce Department orders, but referred The Hill to August comments from Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHouse Republicans urge Democrats to call hearing with tech CEOs Conservatives seize on New York Post story to push Section 230 reform Hillicon Valley: Trump refuses to condemn QAnon | Twitter revises its policy, lets users share disputed article | Google sees foreign cyber threats MORE, when he described the potential ban on TikTok as a “really bad long-term precedent.”

Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram – which launched TikTok competitor Reels last month – tweeted Friday that he was also concerned about the impact of the orders, despite the potential for less competition. 

“I’ve said this before, but a US TikTok ban would be quite bad for Instagram, Facebook, and the internet more broadly,” Mosseri tweeted. “Keep in mind that most of the people who use Instagram are outside the US, as is most of our potential growth. The long term costs of moods countries making aggressive demands and banning us over the next decade outweigh slowing down one competitor today.”

TikTok appealed directly to Facebook and Instagram for assistance on Friday, asking the social media giants to join TikTok’s ongoing legal battle with the Trump administration.

“We agree that this type of ban would be bad for the industry,” TikTok General Manager Vanessa Pappas tweeted Friday. “We invite Facebook and Instagram to publicly join our challenge and support our litigation. This is a moment to put aside our competition and focus on core principles like freedom of expression and due process of law.”

Another example of Trump’s hardline stance on China: The formal ban is the latest of Trump’s nationalist anti-China policies, particularly after a week in which reports trickled out about a deal between TikTok and Oracle would involve Beijing-based ByteDance retaining a majority share in the social media giant.

Lewis told The Hill that the Commerce Department orders had blindsided Chinese officials, who “weren’t expecting the whole thing.”

“They are a little uncomfortable, because in private, they are saying ‘you are using our tactics against us,’” Lewis said. “They can’t stand up and say don’t ban apps, because they ban American apps, the issue will be how much further does the U.S. go to push China out of its networks.”

Lewis warned that “once they get over the shock, they will be looking for ways to retaliate.”

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How a potential Biden administration factors in: While WeChat’s fate was sealed by the Commerce Department orders, TikTok still has a chance to reverse course and remain in the U.S. if a deal can be reached by Nov. 12 that is approved by both President Trump and ByteDance.

Should a deal not be reached and a ban on TikTok go into effect, the potential remains for a reversal under a potential Biden administration.

Fleming told The Hill that he could see the potential Biden administration “revisiting” any TikTok ban, but noted that both candidates have similar hardline stances towards China overall.

“The Tough on China Policy Era is here to stay to some degree,” Fleming said. 

 

In other news..

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM: Top officials at NASA say the agency is facing increasing attempts by foreign hackers to target sensitive information as it works to improve its IT security during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“NASA has vast troves of intellectual information capital that it has spent decades amassing. I think country actors are after that information, the innovations that NASA is so famous for around the world,” agency Inspector General Paul Martin testified to a House Science, Space and Technology Committee subcommittee on Friday.

“There is everything from PII [personally identifiable information], contractual data on the systems, so there is a vast and wide array,” Martin said. “NASA has unfortunately been under attack from both domestic and foreign cyber criminals, and so it is just an ongoing, incredibly difficult issue to keep NASA’s defenses up.”

When pressed by members of the committee on which countries were involved, Martin acknowledged that China was among the nations targeting the agency.

“NASA is taking steps and has been to secure its intellectual property and its networks from attacks both from China and from a series of other countries and also local hackers,” Martin testified. “We have conducted a series of criminal investigations and we work with the FBI and counterintelligence officials when we get leads on these issues.”

The Friday hearing focused on NASA’s cybersecurity and IT security posture in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the majority of its employees to quickly transition to working from home. 

NASA acting Chief Information Officer Jeff Seaton testified to the same panel that the variety of work spaces, along with the increased use of personal devices, led to a spike in malicious phishing emails that NASA has taken steps to address.

Read more here.

 

WE’LL SEE YOU IN COURT: Instagram and its parent company Facebook are being sued for allegedly spying on users with their mobile phone cameras.

The lawsuit was filed in a San Francisco federal court Thursday by a New Jersey Instagram user Brittany Conditi who claimed Facebook accesses mobile cameras while users are on the app “to collect lucrative and valuable data on its users that it would not otherwise have access to.”

“By obtaining extremely private and intimate personal data on their users, including in the privacy of their own homes, [Facebook is] able to increase their advertising revenue by targeting users more than ever before,” the lawsuit alleges.  

“For example, [Facebook is] able to see in-real time how users respond to advertisements on Instagram, providing extremely valuable information to its advertisers.”

The lawsuit comes after reports that emerged this summer that an Instagram bug appeared to have allowed the company to access iPhone cameras even when they weren’t actively being used. Facebook at the time said that they were working on addressing the bug. 

Read more here.

 

YOU CAN HACK, BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE: Researchers announced Friday that they had discovered a “large-scale” six-year campaign by Iranian-linked hackers to surveil Iranian dissidents and expats, including through targeting accounts on the instant messaging app Telegram.

A report released by Check Point Software Technologies said that, beginning as early as 2014, Iranian entities targeted government dissidents including resistance group Mujahedin-e Khalq and the Azerbaijan National Resistance Organization through attacking their mobile devices and personal computers. 

“The conflict of ideologies between those movements and the Iranian authorities makes them a natural target for such an attack, as they align with the political targeting of the regime,” Check Point researchers wrote in the report. 

The Iranian-linked hackers used multiple methods to surveil and attack the victims, including an Android back door that posed as a service for Persian speakers in Sweden to apply for a driver’s license, extracting two-factor authentication codes from SMS messages, recording the audio surroundings of a phone, and hijacking Telegram accounts. 

Check Point researchers noted that the surveillance and hacking effort was likely part of an “effort to collect intelligence on potential opponents to the regime.”

Lotem Finkelsteen, manager of threat intelligence at Check Point, said Friday that in light of the findings, Telegram was “clearly hijack-able,” emphasizing that “instant messaging surveillance, especially on Telegram, is something everyone should be cautious and aware of.”

Read more.

 

Lighter click: The Hill is pleased to announce our new editor!

An op-ed to chew on: The only way to manage disinformation in the 2020 election: Question everything

 

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:

Trump’s TikTok Circus Will Have Lasting Consequences (Wired / Louise Matsakis)

Religious leaders are becoming content creators to keep their followers engaged (Recode / Rebecca Heilweil)

Big Tech spent millions to close California’s digital divide this year. It’s hardly making a dent. (Protocol / Issie Lapowsky)

Facebook Tried to Limit QAnon. It Failed. (New York Times / Sheera Frenkel and Tiffany Hsu)