WeChat is not widely used in the United States, except for by one key group — Chinese-born software engineers in Silicon Valley and other high-tech workforces, according to American officials. They use WeChat to collaborate on tough mathematical, software or engineering problems, trading solutions back and forth. Proprietary data can be scooped up by Chinese intelligence services, an American official said.
A close reading of American statements makes it clear that, so far, much of the risk attributed to the Chinese apps is theoretical. Mr. Trump’s executive order on TikTok was carefully couched in the future tense.
“This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage,” the order said.
Intelligence officials insisted the C.I.A. assessment did not mean the app was safe or that installing it on a phone was wise. One intelligence official said he had warned his own family members not to install it, and some lawmakers also see TikTok more as a surveillance program than a way to watch dance videos.
“It’s all fun and games until the communists start data harvesting,” Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, said in a statement.
But the threat of TikTok has to be kept in perspective, especially given all of the personal information being sucked up, sold and shared by smartphone apps.
Christoph Hebeisen, the director of security intelligence research at Lookout, a company that focuses on the security of mobile devices, examined the TikTok app and came to a conclusion close to that of the intelligence agencies: The Chinese government does not seem to have access to the company’s data on American users, but it could probably get it if it wanted to.