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TikTok, WeChat downloads will be barred from US starting Sunday

The Trump administration's decision comes after weeks of drama.

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Angela Lang/CNET

Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat apps will be barred from US app stores starting Sunday, the Trump administration said Friday, capping weeks of effort by US and Chinese authorities to come to an agreement that would allow the popular software to continue operating.

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The actions are part of President Donald Trump's campaign to protect American consumers and businesses from "the threats of the Chinese Communist Party," US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement. "At the president's direction, we have taken significant action to combat China's malicious collection of American citizens' personal data, while promoting our national values, democratic rules-based norms, and aggressive enforcement of US laws and regulations."

The announcement follows a call from Trump for Beijing-based ByteDance to sell TikTok or risk being banned in the US. The administration is reviewing a deal between Oracle and ByteDance that would make the US company the "trusted technology provider" in the US for TikTok in manner that addresses national security concerns. 

TikTok and WeChat are both widely used around the world. TikTok, popular among teens, is a social networking app that lets users post short videos, often set to music. WeChat, owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent, combines messaging, social media and mobile payment functions.

Friday's decision means TikTok and WeChat won't be available for download from places like Apple's App Store and the Google Play store starting Sunday. People who already have the apps won't be able to download updates after that point. WeChat will largely stop working in the US after Sunday, though TikTok will continue to work until Nov. 12, providing the company a window to reach a deal that allows it to keep operating in the US.

At a news conference on Friday, Trump said a deal with TikTok progress "go very quickly" and "very very fast" when asked if an agreement will be reached before the US presidential election in November.

"We have some great options and maybe we can keep a lot of people happy but have the security that we need," Trump said. "We have to have the total security from China."

TikTok expressed dismay about the government's decision Friday, noting the efforts it's made to work things out.

"In our proposal to the US administration, we've already committed to unprecedented levels of additional transparency and accountability well beyond what other apps are willing to do, including third-party audits, verification of code security, and US government oversight of US data security," a TikTok spokesperson said in an email. "Further, an American technology provider would be responsible for maintaining and operating the TikTok network in the US, which would include all services and data serving US consumers."

TikTok's future in the US has been in limbo since early this summer after Trump targeted the app over concerns that its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, could be forced to give data about American users to the Chinese government. ByteDance says it keeps user data in the US with a backup in Singapore. The company has said it wouldn't give data to the Chinese government if asked.

Trump also signed an executive order on Aug. 6 banning US transactions on WeChat, calling the messaging app a "significant" threat to national security. 

The Chinese embassy on Friday pointed to a statement made earlier this week by the country's foreign ministry that said US politicians are using "the pretext of national security to suppress and coerce non-American companies." China, the statement said, "will firmly support the pertinent companies in safeguarding their legitimate rights and interests and uphold international economic and trade rules."

'The Chinese government's intent'

In a press briefing on Friday, senior Commerce Department officials declined to provide any examples of TikTok or WeChat being used to spy on Americans, or cases where the companies gave data on US citizens to the Chinese government. 

Officials pointed to how WeChat and Douyin, TikTok's Chinese counterpart, have been used for government surveillance at home, and argued that the same would be done in the US. 

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"Whether we have any evidence, domestically, of these particular apps taking data is missing the point," a senior Commerce official said. "We know what they're using these apps for overseas. We know what the Chinese government's intent is here in the United States."

Ross said the threats posed by WeChat and TikTok are similar but not identical, adding they both represent "unacceptable risks to our national security." He said the prohibitions announced on Friday will protect US users by eliminating access to the apps and significantly reducing their functionality. 

Starting Sunday, the Commerce Department is prohibiting "any provision of service to distribute or maintain the WeChat or TikTok mobile applications, constituent code, or application updates through an online mobile application store in the US" as well as "any provision of services through the WeChat mobile application for the purpose of transferring funds or processing payments within the US."

Additional prohibitions will kick in on Sunday for WeChat and on Nov. 12 for TikTok, including prohibiting "internet hosting services enabling the functioning or optimization" of the apps and prohibiting using the mobile apps' "constituent code, functions, or services in the functioning of software or services developed and/or accessible within the US," according to the Commerce Department. 

That means that the services won't be able to host data or use servers in the US to make the apps run smoothly for American users, for example. 

Third-party services that have the same functionality as WeChat but under a different name also won't be allowed, the Commerce Department said.

That same service cut-off won't happen until November for TikTok because of the Trump administration's executive order on Aug. 14, which gives 90 days for ByteDance to sell TikTok to an American company. The Commerce Department said it could have taken more actions against TikTok, but didn't want to disrupt ongoing negotiations between the company and interested buyers.

TikTok and security updates

The lack of updates for TikTok over the next two months raises security concerns, since its millions of users in the US will no longer be able to get security patches. TikTok has patched multiple security vulnerabilities discovered on its app in the last year. 

The Commerce Department defended its actions and said the apps weren't secured to begin with because of their possible connections to the Chinese government. 

"The argument that we're eroding security because we're not allowing an untrusted entity to push so-called security updates to apps which are already untrusted on its face kind of falls flat," a Commerce official said. "These apps need to stop being used in the United States and to the extent that we can stop them from getting used, we are taking that action through these prohibitions."

Tencent didn't respond to a request for comment. Apple and Google also didn't respond to a request for comment.