ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Dozens of families are suing TikTok for allegedly collecting their children's data without permission and sending that information to servers in China. The suit comes at an especially bad time for the app. It is owned by a Chinese company. President Trump considers that a national security threat, and he's ordered that TikTok be sold by the middle of next month. This lawsuit could complicate any sale. NPR's Bobby Allyn joins us with details.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Tell us more about who is suing TikTok and what they are alleging.
ALLYN: So there are 70 families suing TikTok, and they're claiming that from the moment the app is downloaded on your phone, it starts vacuuming reams of personal information like your location, your browser history, your contacts and when you start taking videos. The suit says TikTok is downloading and saving a profile of your face, and it even makes a guess about your age and your background. You know, lawyers for the users say this is kind of alarming for anyone but especially when it's happening to children. And I will say here, Ari, you know, many smartphone apps use - that you use every day are harvesting tons of data. But lawyers say TikTok is different because of what is allegedly doing with all that data.
SHAPIRO: Right. The fear in Washington is that TikTok is sending U.S. data to Chinese authorities. TikTok has always denied this. Does the lawsuit add anything new to this debate?
ALLYN: Yeah. The lawsuit makes a pretty startling claim, which is lawyers hired outside experts to, like, forensically examine the TikTok app. And they say they traced data from American citizens being directly sent to Chinese servers, which the attorneys say are under the control of third parties that directly cooperate with the Chinese government. There has not been any clear evidence of this happening before this lawsuit, and the lawyers say now we have evidence.
SHAPIRO: And that also contradicts what TikTok has said it does with the data. So what do officials at TikTok now say in response to this suit?
ALLYN: Right. So in response to the suit, TikTok's lawyers have filed papers saying, look. Data moves in complicated ways. It's not weird for data to jump from one country to the next, especially when it's on servers. And the lawsuit's analysis is wrong. TikTok says most of its data on Americans is stored in the Washington, D.C., area in Virginia, and they have backup in Singapore. Besides having what they call a sloppy analysis, TikTok's lawyers say the lawsuit is engaging in, quote, "anti-Chinese rhetoric" and is elevating speculation as real evidence.
SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, Microsoft has said that it's in talks to acquire TikTok. How is this lawsuit likely to factor into those discussions?
ALLYN: Yeah. Well, plaintiffs' lawyers hope this becomes a nationwide class action, and if it does, it could linger for many years to come. So we don't know yet what this liability is going to look like. There's a lot of negotiations that need to be hammered out still. But Microsoft, of course, is a $1.5 trillion company. It has deep, deep pockets. But a legal bill this serious still has the potential of muddying the waters as Microsoft and TikTok continue potential merger talks.
SHAPIRO: I mean, could it potentially undermine that merger and prevent it from happening?
ALLYN: I don't think so. The experts that I've talked to and the folks who are close to that deal say it's not going to stop the deal in its tracks. But, you know, as Microsoft is, you know, kicking the tires and looking under the hood of TikTok, this is a bill that is going to be looked at very, very carefully. And it might change the final deal, but I don't think Microsoft is going to see this and say, it's such a liability; it's such a problem that we're going to walk away. That's probably not going to happen.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Bobby Allyn, thank you.
ALLYN: Thank you, Ari.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.