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White House promises purge of ‘untrusted’ Chinese apps

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The Trump administration has said that it is stepping up efforts to remove “untrusted” Chinese apps and other digital products as part of its Clean Network initiative.

According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the expanded Clean Network programme will focus on five areas and include measures to prevent Chinese tech companies from accessing sensitive information belonging to US businesses and citizens.

“With parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok, WeChat, and others are significant threats to personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for CCP content censorship,” Pompeo claimed. TikTok has rejected similar claims made against it, stating that US user data are stored in the US.

According to Pompeo, the State Department will work with other government departments and agencies to safeguard US data and IP – including Covid-19 vaccine research – by blocking access from cloud-based systems run by Chinese tech giants like Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent, as well as telecommunications companies like China Mobile.

Pompeo said that he was urging the Federal Communications Commission to terminate permission for China Telecom and three other companies to provide services to and from the US. Attorney General William Barr, the Secretary of Defense, and the Acting Homeland Security Secretary are joining Pompeo in this effort.

He also said that the US would try to prevent Huawei, which recently overtook Samsung as the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer, from pre-installing or making available the most popular US apps on its phones. Previous action taken by the White House has already severely limited Huawei’s access to Google services, meaning that its latest phones are not equipped with popular Google apps such as Gmail, Maps, and YouTube.

Another area of focus will reportedly be preventing Beijing from compromising data carried by undersea cables; last month, a US government committee recommended that the activation of a undersea data cable connecting the US with Hong Kong and other parts of Asia should be rejected, citing data theft concerns.

Speaking to state news agency Xinhua this week, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said that the US does not have the right to set up the so-called 'Clean Network' and characterised these actions as bullying: “Anyone can see through clearly that the intention of the US is to protect its monopoly position in technology and to rob other countries of their proper right to development,” said Wang.

Pompeo’s comments come as the US-China relationship plunges to new lows, with the US focusing its attacks on Chinese technology companies such as Huawei, ZTE, and TikTok. Trump has threatened to ban TikTok – a hugely popular video-sharing app – in the US over unspecified national security concerns. Microsoft is engaged in discussions with TikTok parent company ByteDance about a possible acquisition, which could allow it to continue operating in the US. Trump has demanded that discussions must be completed by 15 September.

A recent report from CNBC suggest that TikTok could be valued at anywhere between $10bn and $30bn, and that Microsoft would attempt to transfer all of TikTok’s code from China to US within 12 months if the deal goes ahead.

Meanwhile, Facebook-owned Instagram has launched a direct competitor to TikTok, Reels, which allows users to create, share, and view 15-second long videos set to music. These videos are incorporated into the Instagram app.

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