Amazon.com Inc . on Friday afternoon reversed a demand that employees delete the TikTok app from company mobile devices, a shocking turnabout from a dictate that just hours before had stoked concern about the app’s security and ties to China.
The first message was dramatic enough, as the email directive to employees appeared to buttress recent scrutiny of TikTok security issues from governments in the U.S. and India.
Then, the second message, in which a spokesman called the email an error, backed away from what briefly appeared to be a major policy change. It was a rare instance in which such a shift played out in public for one of the world’s most valuable and closely watched companies.
What remained unclear late Friday was how many people within Amazon, if anyone, harbor concern about TikTok to such a degree that would have prompted the memo in the first place.
The now-retracted email was sent as an alert to thousands of Amazon employees early in the business day in Seattle: “Due to security risks, the TikTok app is no longer permitted on mobile devices that access Amazon email. If you have TikTok on your device, you must remove it by 10-Jul to retain mobile access to Amazon email. At this time, using TikTok from your Amazon laptop browser is allowed.”
News of the decision broke and quickly went viral after it was reported by The Information tech news site, and within hours two U.S. senators responded enthusiastically.
“Now the whole federal government should follow suit,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) said in a tweet.
Amazon had reversed itself by midafternoon on the West Coast. “This morning’s email to some of our employees was sent in error,” the Amazon spokesman said late Friday. “There is no change to our policies right now with regard to TikTok.”
The Amazon spokesman declined to comment further.
Earlier this week, U.S. bank Wells Fargo & Co. also asked employees to delete TikTok from their company devices.
“We have identified a small number of Wells Fargo employees with corporate-owned devices who had installed the TikTok application on their device,” a Wells Fargo spokesman said in a statement. “Due to concerns about TikTok’s privacy and security controls and practices, and because corporate-owned devices should be used for company business only, we have directed those employees to remove the app from their devices.”
A spokeswoman for TikTok said the company hasn’t been contacted by Wells Fargo but the company is open to discussing its data security measures with the bank. “Our hope is that whatever concerns Wells Fargo may have can be answered through transparent dialogue so that their employees can continue to participate in and benefit from our community,” she said. The Wells Fargo employee request was earlier reported by the Information.
The Amazon memo initially appeared to be the latest high-profile setback for the short-form video app. Earlier this week its owner, Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., said it would pull TikTok out of Hong Kong in the midst of concern about a new national-security law. That was its second market exit after India banned the app and others from Chinese companies, citing cybersecurity concern, as part of an escalating border conflict between Beijing and New Delhi.
ByteDance in May hired a top Walt Disney Co. executive, Kevin Mayer, to be TikTok’s new chief executive officer and navigate its global expansion.
Meanwhile, President Trump has said his administration is considering limiting U.S. users’ access to TikTok. In Washington, some lawmakers have called for an outright ban, saying data in the smartphone app would be available to Beijing, a claim TikTok has denied.
TikTok’s security has come under scrutiny in recent months. In March, security researchers found that TikTok was one of several dozen iPhone apps that were silently accessing data copied into the phone’s clipboard without authorization. The clipboard is software that stores data in the phone’s memory whenever someone copies and pastes information using the iPhone.
The security issue could give TikTok a way of accessing any sensitive information that might have been copied, such as passwords or email messages or banking information, said Tommy Mysk, one of the researchers who discovered the clipboard issue.
After his research into TikTok’s clipboard was published in March, Mr. Mysk and a colleague took another look at TikTok and discovered that it was sending videos without using a standard internet encryption protocol—a design decision that could give hackers a way of spoofing TikTok videos from legitimate users. TikTok has since fixed this issue, Mr. Mysk said, but according to him, it was another sign that the product’s security was substandard.
Last month, TikTok said that the data access was part of an anti-spam feature and that no such information left users’ devices, adding that it had removed that tool.
A TikTok spokeswoman on Friday said that it is currently reviewing a number of claims made in recent weeks about its security practices and that it has already determined that many are inaccurate or outdated.
TikTok is known for its often lighthearted user-made videos featuring pranks, dancing and cats. For much of its history, the company aggressively curated its content to avoid topics that were controversial, though in recent months it has become more permissive and begun featuring more political videos.
In the U.S., the app was second in downloads to Zoom Video Communications Inc. ’s namesake video-chat app in the first half of 2020, according to market-research firm Sensor Tower, which said TikTok has racked up 184.7 million U.S. downloads to date across the App Store and Google Play. The U.S. was TikTok’s third-largest market in new users in the first half of the year, after India and Brazil.
A new survey of 2,200 U.S. adults found that Americans were divided over whether TikTok should be barred from operating in the U.S., with 29% saying yes, 33% saying no and 38% unsure. Among the youngest respondents, considered the most common users of the app, 25% said they would be more likely to use TikTok if they learned that the U.S. was looking to ban the app. Just 9% said they would be less likely to use it, according to the survey’s creator, the data-intelligence company Morning Consult.
Users made their concerns about a potential shutdown of TikTok known on the app, where the hashtag #savetiktok was viewed more than 170 million times as of early Friday afternoon.
TikTok is currently under a national-security review by Washington through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. after lawmakers raised concerns that the app was censoring content to comply with Chinese government requests. TikTok has denied these allegations.
The U.S. military has banned its members from using TikTok, signaling concern about possible security risks related to the app.
India late last month banned TikTok as part of a wider move requiring internet service providers to block access to 59 Chinese apps. New Delhi imposed the ban after a border clash between troops from the two countries left 20 Indian soldiers dead last month, citing cybersecurity concerns.
TikTok is among scores of mobile apps to share or make available private information about their users with third parties, said Kirsten Martin, professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. “If we’re going to ban TikTok, why not ban all other apps on our phones?” she said. “China’s involvement is what makes it so adversarial.”
—Robert McMillan and Dana Mattioli contributed to this article.
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