TikTok says it’s a “significant milestone” toward its promises to beef up the security of its US users’ data. In a new update, the company says it has “changed the default storage location of US user data.”
As the company notes, it had already stored much of its user data in the United States, at a Virginia-based data center. But under a new partnership with Oracle, the company has migrated US user traffic to a new Oracle Cloud Infrastructure.
“Today, 100% of US user traffic is being routed to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure,” the company wrote in a blog post. “We still use our US and Singapore data centers for backup, but as we continue our work we expect to delete US users' private data from our own data centers and fully pivot to Oracle cloud servers located in the US.” Additionally, TikTok says it has made “operational changes,” including a new department “with US-based leadership, to solely manage US user data for TikTok.”
The moves are part of a by TikTok to address US officials’ over how user data is handled by TikTok and parent company ByteDance. The company has been working to separate US user data so that it’s not accessible to China-based ByteDance as US lawmakers eye to curb the influence of Chinese tech companies.
Still, the new safeguards are unlikely to fully sway critics of TikTok, who say the company still hasn’t addressed all potential concerns about how US user data is handled. In fact, just after TikTok published its blog post, BuzzFeed News a report that raises new questions about how the company handles the data of its US users.
The report, which was based on hours of internal meetings leaked to BuzzFeed, says that “China-based employees of ByteDance have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US TikTok users.” The recordings, which cover a time period between last September and January 2022, offer new details about the complex effort to cut off Bytedance's access to US user data.
The report quotes an outside consultant hired by TikTok to oversee some of the work saying that they believed there was “backdoor to access user data in almost all” of the company’s internal tools. It also quotes statements from several employees who say “that engineers in China had access to US data between September 2021 and January 2022, at the very least.”
It also notes that while data deemed “sensitive,” like users’ birth dates and phone numbers, will be stored in the Oracle servers, other information about US-based users could remain accessible to ByteDance. “ByteDance’s China-based employees could continue to have access to insights about what American TikTok users are interested in, from cat videos to political beliefs,” the report says.
That may not seem as serious as more personal information like birthdays and phone numbers, but it’s exactly the kind of details that some lawmakers in the US have raised concerns about. US officials have questioned whether the app’s “For You” algorithm could be used as a means of .
“We know we're among the most scrutinized platforms from a security standpoint, and we aim to remove any doubt about the security of US user data,” TikTok said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
Three years after its involvement with the military’s controversial program led to employee strife within its walls, Google reportedly hopes to once again work with the Pentagon. According to , the company is “aggressively” pursuing the Defense Department’s Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability cloud contract. A Google spokesperson confirmed to Engadget it was pursuing a bid.
Announced at the start of July, the program is a replacement for the military’s initiative. With JEDI, the Pentagon had planned to modernize its IT infrastructure with help from . However, the contract stalled after Amazon , in part over allegations former President Donald Trump had .
Unlike JEDI, JWCC is a multi-vendor contract that will see the military eventually working with more than one company. When the Pentagon announced the program, it said it would collect proposals from both Amazon and Microsoft. At the time, it said they were the two vendors best suited to meet its needs, but noted it was also open to working with other companies. Google did not bid on JEDI in part because of what happened with Project Maven.
The program, , saw the military use machine learning to interpret drone footage. When the company its involvement in Maven, it said its technology was involved in “non-offensive uses only,” and that it was flagging material for “human review.” Outrage within the company quickly grew. Approximately 4,000 employees petitioned Google CEO to pull the company out of the project. Some workers even . In the aftermath of the protest, the company did not with the Pentagon.
It also established a set of to guide its military AI work. Those prohibit the company from using machine learning in relation to “weapons or other technologies whose principal purpose or implementation is to cause or directly facilitate injury to people.” When Google established the principles, Pichai reportedly told workers his hope was they would stand “the test of time.”
In spite of those guidelines, Google is pursuing the JWCC contract. According to The Times, the company has “raced” to prepare a proposal to present to Pentagon officials on why it should be involved in the project. The contract is reportedly a priority for the company, with the outlet reporting that Google pulled employees off other assignments to work on its bid.
“We strongly believe a multi-cloud strategy offers the department the best solution today and in the future,” a spokesperson for the company said. “We are firmly committed to serving our public sector customers, including the DoD, Department of Energy, NIH, and many other government agencies, and we will evaluate any future bid opportunities accordingly."
Google will reportedly find out if it qualifies to make a bid sometime in the next few weeks. The question then becomes if the contract is compatible with its AI guidelines, and what effect that will have on its employees. Those principles leave room for it to work with the military on projects that involve things like cybersecurity, and it already has contracts in place to help the Defense Department with pilot training and Navy ship maintenance.
If it obtains the contract, Engadget has learned the company anticipates it could help the Defense Department with cloud services like hosting, storage and networking, in addition to artificial intelligence and machine learning. Specifically, the Pentagon could use Google's data analytics capabilities to predict and monitor forces like climate change and the current pandemic. Any custom AI work the job involves will need to be vetted through the company's guidelines. It also expects it could work with the Pentagon on more prosaic issues like security, employee travel and finance.
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