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Warning: Data danger ahead

Jim Banks wants to flag risks hidden within popular apps

Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., talks on his phone as he leaves the Capitol after the final vote of the week on June 5, 2019.
Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., talks on his phone as he leaves the Capitol after the final vote of the week on June 5, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When it comes to mobile apps like the increasingly popular TikTok, it’s all fun and games until a foreign adversary uses them to collect personal data.

New legislation introduced Tuesday by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., would require app stores and developers to include a warning before users download certain apps, spelling out who owns the company that developed the app and under which country’s laws the company is organized.

The warning would pop up as a separate dialogue box from the app’s normal terms and conditions. It would require users to either acknowledge the information before proceeding or decline to move forward with the download.

Banks, a member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities, introduced the measure as a stand-alone bill, but he said attaching it to the annual defense policy bill could be one way to get it passed into law.

“With the [defense authorization bill] coming up, that’s certainly one vehicle that we’re exploring, to potentially offer the bill as an amendment,” he said.

TikTok, which allows users to create short videos, was developed by Beijing-based ByteDance and potentially allows its users’ data to be collected by the Chinese government. FaceApp, which creates filters to alter the appearance of users’ photos, was produced by the Russian firm Wireless Lab.

“Right now as we speak, families sitting at home are probably downloading more apps on their devices than ever before,” Banks told CQ Roll Call. “Hopefully people will think twice before they hit the ‘accept’ button if they receive that kind of warning on their device before they download an app.”

In December, the Pentagon banned TikTok on government-owned devices; military services, including the Army, followed suit. In 2016, the Defense Department prohibited the downloading of the game app Pokemon Go over similar concerns.

With Congress mostly staying out of session during the COVID-19 pandemic, Banks hasn’t been able to circulate his bill as easily as he could if lawmakers were in Washington. But he said he expects it will draw at least some support in Congress, and he is not alone in his concerns about malevolent actors using apps to collect Americans’ data.

Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., have spoken out over concerns about TikTok and FaceApp, respectively.

Banks admits that he used FaceApp himself until he became aware of the risks involved.

“These are fun apps — that’s not lost on me. They’re very popular for a reason,” he said. “But people should know what they are putting on their device before they hit the ‘accept’ button.”

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