President Trump ordered the banning of eight Chinese software applications Tuesday over concerns Beijing is using the apps to spy on Americans and steal massive amounts of data to support its communist system.
“By accessing personal electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers, Chinese-connected software applications can access and capture vast swaths of information from users, including sensitive personally identifiable information and private information,” Mr. Trump said in an executive order.
Chinese data collection operations against U.S. government and private sector companies threaten to provide Beijing with access to Americans’ personal data and information.
The data would allow the Chinese government to track the locations of federal employees and contractors and build personal dossiers that could be used for spying and agent recruitment.
Among the targeted apps are WeChat Pay and Alipay, major apps used for financial transactions. Other banned software includes CamScanner, QQ Wallet, SHAREit, Tencent QQ, VMate, and WPS Office.
White House National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien said the order targets China’s military-civilian fusion program that seeks to obtain technology and information to boost Chinese modernization efforts.
“China’s military-civil fusion strategy explicitly aims to coopt or coerce civilian enterprises into assisting the People’s Liberation Army,” Mr. O’Brien said.
The action is based on the growing use in the United States of internet-linked mobile and desktop apps that are controlled by Chinese companies. The software threatens U.S. national security, foreign policy and the economic interests, Mr. Trump said in the order.
Several recent cases of Chinese data theft were mentioned in the order. They include 2014 cyberattacks against the Office of Personnel Management that pilfered 21 million records on federal workers, including those holding security clearances.
A year later, Chinese hackers breached the healthcare provider Anthem and obtained sensitive health records on 78 million people.
Federal authorities also indicted Chinese military hackers in 2017 for stealing data from the financial monitoring service Equifax, compromise personal information on nearly 150 million Americans.
Many federal agencies already banned Chinese connected software, but the order said the effort was “not enough given the nature of the threat from Chinese connected software applications.”
According to the order, the government assessed that a number of Chinese apps automatically capture large amounts of electronic data.
“The United States must take aggressive action against those who develop or control Chinese connected software applications to protect our national security,” Mr. Trump said.
India’s government has banned the use of more than 200 Chinese software applications after authorities there determined the Chinese were using them to steal data and send it outside India.
The order directs the Commerce Department to ban all transactions by the eight Chinese apps within 45 days, and report to the White House recommendations to prevent the sale and transfer of data to U.S. adversaries.
Asked about the national security risks related to the Chinese software, a senior administration official said the risk is that Chinese-linked apps can obtain “exabytes of data, really granular data on the American people” and sensitive infrastructure.
An exabyte is 1 quintillion bytes (a “1” followed by 18 “zeroes,” or a billion billion).
The official said in a briefing for reporters on the order that Chinese-made apps are “handing that [data] over to a totalitarian, fascist, technology-enabled dictatorship run by the Chinese Communist Party.”
China’s communist system “uses mass amounts of information in order to control and oppress its people – the Uighurs, the people of Hong Kong – and it’s using that data to try and oppress people outside of China,” the official said
“What we’re trying to do is articulate to the world and take concrete steps here in the United States to stop the encroachment of China’s big data strategy here in the United States,” the official said.
The official called the order a bid to counter China’s “digital totalitarianism.” It will help prevent data from the American people, including their text messages, phone calls and photos from their phones, from being fed into China’s “mass tool for global oppression,” the official said.
The order also is the latest in a string of actions by the administration seeking to block Chinese theft of information and technology.
Last month, the FBI charged a Chinese national and former executive of popular video conferencing software Zoom with secretly collaborating with Chinese intelligence to block dissidents from using the services.
The complaint in the case revealed that Zoom, a U.S. company that is permitted to operate inside China, has provided data gathered during Zoom meetings to Chinese authorities.
An executive order issued in August banned the use of WeChat messaging service and the popular TikTok video sharing application.
Those apps gather vast swaths of user data from Americans, including network activity, location data, and browsing and search histories.
Federal judges, however, temporarily enjoined the WeChat and TikTok bans, citing First Amendment concerns.
The administration last month also blocked China’s government from funding all-expense paid visits to China by congressional staff, a move that prompted anger from Capitol Hill staffers who insisted they were not consulted about the action.