Amazon says it sent warning about TikTok app to employees by mistake

The online retail giant had cited the app's "security risks," without offering specifics.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Ben Fox Rubin
Alfred Ng
3 min read

TikTok is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Amazon sent a memo to employees Friday morning telling them to delete the popular social media app TikTok from their phones. Hours later, the company's press office said the memo was sent in error but provided no further explanation.

In the email to workers, Amazon's IT services department said the app poses "security risks," but it didn't provide specifics. Workers were told to remove the app Friday to be able to keep mobile access to their work email. Access to TikTok from a browser on a laptop would still be allowed, according to the email, titled "Action required: Mandatory removal of TikTok by 10-Jul," which CNET reviewed.

By Friday afternoon, an Amazon spokesperson provided a short statement, saying the whole thing was a mistake. "This morning's email to some of our employees was sent in error. There is no change to our policies right now with regard to TikTok," the spokesperson said.

An email from Kellie Green, Amazon's director of IT services, was also sent out to employees Friday afternoon, titled "Disregard TikTok email," and included the exact same language as the spokesperson's statement.

While Amazon's call to ban TikTok was vague, it wasn't out of the blue. TikTok, which is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance, has faced increased scrutiny over concerns about the Chinese government using the app for spying. Citing national security, India banned TikTok last week. The US and Australia are also considering blocking the app. Chinese officials have taken issue with the intelligence concerns.

The Amazon memo caused TikTok to send out its own statement before Amazon backtracked on the ban. "User security is of the utmost importance to TikTok -- we are fully committed to respecting the privacy of our users," a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement Friday morning. "While Amazon did not communicate to us before sending their email, and we still do not understand their concerns, we welcome a dialogue so we can address any issues they may have and enable their team to continue participating in our community. We're proud that tens of millions of Americans turn to TikTok for entertainment, inspiration, and connection, including many of the Amazon employees and contractors who have been on the frontlines of this pandemic."

If the memo was an error, as Amazon says, it can be added to the many missteps its had during a chaotic year that's damaged the corporate juggernaut's reputation for strong execution. The e-commerce giant's warehouse workers have repeatedly protested against Amazon to get better protections against the coronavirus, the company's heralded and speedy logistics network sputtered for months, and its human resources department has appeared to buckle from the many requests for time off as its handled the hiring of 175,000 new US workers.

TikTok has been the subject of security concerns in the past.

In December, the US Army banned TikTok from its phones, and in March, US senators proposed a bill that would block TikTok from all government devices. The lawmakers behind the legislation cited espionage concerns, noting that Bytedance is a Chinese corporation. 

Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri and one of the bill's co-sponsors, said in a March statement that TikTok "admitted it collects user data while their app is running in the background -- including the messages people send, pictures they share, their keystrokes and location data."  

Security experts have been quick to point out that many apps do this, including popular apps like Facebook, Google Maps and Instagram, but don't attract the same scrutiny because they're not Chinese-owned. 

French security researcher Baptiste Robert said he's analyzed the TikTok app and that while he sees privacy issues with how much data the social network takes from devices, it's nothing out of the ordinary in the app ecosystem. 

"I found nothing unusual for this kind of app with such a user base," Robert said. "This is bad in terms of privacy, for sure. But in terms of security, it's not worse than the other apps."

Will Strafach, CEO of mobile security company Guardian, said he and his team had been looking at TikTok extensively since May. The cybersecurity firm is still in the process of analyzing the app, but hasn't found any "immediately alarming activity" from TikTok. 

"The process is still underway, but at this time, our current assessment is that they do collect analytics data like many other apps, but they are not showing any indicators of siphoning up anything additional or noteworthy," Strafach said. 

Watch this: Now What for TikTok: A conversation with Bryan Thoensen