“What they collect are data on locality, data on what you are streaming toward, what your preferences are, what you are referencing, every bit of behavior that the American side is indulging in becomes available to whoever is watching on the other side,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to squelch.”
In its announcement, the Commerce Department said that both WeChat and TikTok collected information from their users including location data, network activity and browsing histories. As Chinese companies, they are also subject to China’s policy of “civil-military fusion” and mandatory cooperation with Chinese intelligence services, it said.
Cybersecurity experts have debated the extent to which the bans would address national security threats. Many other Chinese-owned companies gather data from mobile users in the United States, as do Facebook, Google and other non-Chinese services.
James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the administration’s moves seemed aimed at pushing ByteDance to give the U.S. more control over TikTok.
“It looks like it’s largely a continuation of the pressure tactics to get ByteDance to make a deal,” said Mr. Lewis. “WeChat is sort of the human sacrifice of this deal. They’ve gone nuclear on them.”
TikTok has been downloaded nearly 200 million times in the U.S., about 9 percent of the app’s downloads outside of China, according to Sensor Tower, an app analytics firm. WeChat has been downloaded nearly 22 million times in the U.S. since 2014, or about 7 percent of its downloads outside of China, Sensor Tower said.
The ability of the U.S. to enforce the ban remains an open question. As Chinese authorities know, internet bans are easier declared than enforced. While the U.S. rules block the app from stores within the country, workarounds will likely materialize. Users could switch their settings to access to an app store outside the U.S., or switch to other Tencent apps, like a messaging service called QQ.