- The Washington Times
Sunday, August 2, 2020

Social media apps on your phone have spied on you, the government and on competitor applications, though Big Tech insists the snooping is inadvertent or an innocent mistake.

Instagram stands accused of turning on users’ cameras without permission, LinkedIn is implicated with Chinese spying against the U.S. government and TikTok is suspected of handing over users’ data to the Chinese government.

Mounting accusations of privacy invasions have put Big Tech and social media companies under scrutiny from Congress and the White House.

“Americans should be very alarmed because Big Tech is spying on everything that we see, or write or where we move,” said Mike Davis, founder of the conservative Internet Accountability Project. “We think that these apps are ‘free’ but these trillion-dollar big tech companies with their billionaire bosses didn’t make their fortune by giving out freebies. Big Tech makes money by turning us into the commodity and selling everything they know about us to the highest bidder.”

Several allegations about the apps’ snooping stem from iPhone users testing a new operating system, iOS 14, from Apple that provides more details about what information apps are collecting.

“Casually browsing Instagram when suddenly the new iOS 14 camera/microphone indicator comes on,” tweeted @KevDoy with a screenshot indicating Instagram accessed his camera. “Then control panel ratted out the app behind it. This is going to change things #iOS14.”

Facebook, which owns Instagram, said it is investigating the problem but thinks it may be caused by users starting to use Instagram’s “Create Mode” directly from their feeds.

“We only access your camera when you tell us to — for example, when you swipe from Feed to Camera,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “We found and are fixing a bug in iOS 14 Beta that mistakenly indicates that some people are using the camera when they aren’t. We do not access your camera in those instances, and no content is recorded.”

Other users testing the new Apple operating system found dozens of apps, including LinkedIn and TikTok, reading users’ clipboards after each keystroke as they used other applications on their phones. TikTok and several other apps similarly monitoring the use of competitors’ apps said the issue was simply a bug and they were working to fix it.

LinkedIn, which is owned by Microsoft, has remained silent and now faces a potential class-action lawsuit for the alleged clipboard spying.

The civil lawsuit is far from LinkedIn’s biggest headache, as the platform also was implicated in a criminal case as a tool of a Chinese agent working to gather sensitive information on the U.S. government and military.

Jun Wei “Dickson” Yeo pleaded guilty last month and a court filing said he used a social networking app and website to recruit government officials working at the State Department and Air Force. Mr. Yeo is believed to have used LinkedIn and other websites to recruit unwitting assets with knowledge of the F-35B military aircraft program and information about a U.S. Cabinet official.

LinkedIn has refused to comment on the latest use of its platform by Mr. Yeo to spy on Americans for the Chinese, but it is certainly aware of the counterintelligence problem. In 2018, for example, the FBI arrested a Defense Intelligence Agency case officer preparing to travel to China from a Seattle airport with information printed from LinkedIn on current and former DIA officials, according to the Justice Department.

After U.S. officials sounded the alarm about Chinese agents’ use of LinkedIn earlier this year, LinkedIn insisted to The Washington Times in February that, “We actively seek out signs of state-sponsored activity on the platform and quickly take action against bad actors in order to protect our members.”

Without addressing Mr. Yeo’s case directly, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center said it has been working with American allies overseas on the threat posed by sites such as LinkedIn and pointed to Australia and France as two allies similarly fighting intelligence adversaries using LinkedIn.

“At a minimum, we encourage the public to practice basic cyber hygiene when receiving a friend/link requests via social media,” said a National Counterintelligence and Security Center spokesperson. “Never accept a friend/link request from someone you don’t know, even if they are a friend of a friend.”

While the vulnerabilities exploited on LinkedIn involve intermediaries, lawmakers are concerned TikTok is directly operating at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party.

Seven Republican senators wrote to the heads of the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence last week to determine whether the Chinese government is using the China-owned TikTok to interfere in the 2020 election.

“TikTok has become a popular forum for Americans — particularly younger Americans — to engage in political conversations,” the senators wrote. “We are greatly concerned that the CCP could use its control over TikTok to distort or manipulate these conversations to sow discord among Americans and to achieve its preferred political outcomes.”

In a letter to House lawmakers last week, TikTok said it, “never provided any U.S. user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”

“TikTok isn’t the go-to app to follow political news or candidates, but we’re taking cues from the experience of our peers during the last US presidential election and proactively investing to safeguard our app,” a TikTok spokesperson said in an email. “TikTok already has a strict policy against disinformation, and we don’t accept political ads. Our content and moderation policies are led by our U.S.-based team in California and aren’t influenced by any foreign government.”

Many other apps are not immune to the suspicions of snooping that have dogged Instagram, LinkedIn, and TikTok. Google is facing litigation arguing that it has monitored users’ physical movements as well as its users’ activity on the internet and Android devices. Following the cyberattack at Twitter earlier this month, the company and the FBI are still investigating how much personal data was spied on or stolen. The increasing litigation and oversight from policymakers and law enforcement may not reveal new problems, just growing public awareness of how users’ data is stored and shared.

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