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TikTok: US general manager Pappas says app ‘here for the long run’

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Offices of ByteDance in BeijingImage copyright
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TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance

The US general manager of TikTok has said the Chinese-owned video-sharing app is “here for the long run”, after President Donald Trump said he would ban it in the US.

Vanessa Pappas told TikTok users in a video statement that its staff were building “the safest app”.

Mr Trump said he could sign an executive order as early as Saturday, amid concerns the app could be used to collect Americans’ personal data.

TikTok denies any Chinese control.

The fast-growing app has up to 80 million active monthly users in the US and the ban would be a major blow for the Chinese firm ByteDance which owns it.

It was not immediately clear what authority Mr Trump has to ban TikTok, how that ban would be enforced and what legal challenges it would face.

But Reuters news agency reported on Saturday that ByteDance had agreed to completely divest TikTok’s US operations. Previously the Chinese company had sought to keep a minority stake, with Microsoft reportedly in talks to buy the app.

The move to ban TikTok comes at a time of heightened tensions between the Trump administration and the Chinese government over a number of issues, including trade disputes and Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

What did Ms Pappas say?

TikTok’s US general manager said the company had heard an “outpouring of support” for the app, and thanked the “millions of Americans” who used it every day.

“We’re not planning on going anywhere,” she said.

Addressing concerns about data security, she said TikTok was behaving responsibly.

“When it comes to safety and security, we’re building the safest app, because we know it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

“We’re here for the long run, continue to share your voice here and let’s stand for TikTok.”

What is TikTok?

The platform has exploded in popularity in recent years, mostly with people under 20.

They use the app to share 15-second videos that often involve lip-synching to songs, comedy routines and unusual editing tricks.

These videos are then made available to both followers and strangers. By default, all accounts are public, although users can restrict uploads to an approved list of contacts.

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Media captionWATCH: What is TikTok?

TikTok also allows private messages to be sent but this facility is limited to “friends”.

The app is reported to have around 800 million active monthly users, most of whom are in the US and India.

India has already blocked TikTok as well as other Chinese apps. Australia, which has already banned Huawei and telecom equipment-maker ZTE, is also considering banning TikTok.

Why Trump dislikes TikTok

Analysis by James Clayton, BBC North America technology correspondent

Trump’s dislike of TikTok goes further than just privacy concerns.

In India TikTok was banned after a border skirmish with China – it was caught up in a geopolitical feud. And that’s what’s happened here, too. Trump’s sights are set firmly on China – and this should be seen through that lens.

TikTok says that it doesn’t keep any data in China and would never give it to China.

But, in many ways it doesn’t matter what they say, the fact that they are owned by a Chinese’s company is guilt enough.

Not to be overlooked either is Trump’s previous experience with TikTok.

Last month users claimed to have scuppered his Tulsa rally after signing up to tickets they had no intention of using.

And although there are Republican and conservative voices on TikTok, the profile of users in the US is generally young and liberal/left.

It’s hard to believe that’s not a factor here.

Why is the US concerned about TikTok?

US officials and politicians have raised concerns data collected by ByteDance via TikTok may end up being passed to the Chinese government.

TikTok operates a similar but separate version of the app in China, known as Douyin. It says all US user data is stored in the US, with a backup in Singapore.

This week, TikTok told users and regulators it would observe a high level of transparency, including allowing reviews of its algorithms.

“We are not political, we do not accept political advertising and have no agenda – our only objective is to remain a vibrant, dynamic platform for everyone to enjoy,” the CEO of TikTok, Kevin Mayer, said in a post this week.

“TikTok has become the latest target, but we are not the enemy.”

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Media captionWATCH: Will TikTok be banned?

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Microsoft confirms plan to buy TikTok as Trump weighs options

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The president had also been weighing options over the past few days to force Beijing-based parent company ByteDance to divest in TikTok in the United States because of national security concerns, according to people familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them publicly.

Microsoft confirmed it will “move quickly” on discussions with ByteDance and said it has given the U.S. government notice of a possible acquisition of the U.S. assets of TikTok.

This is the first time Microsoft has confirmed that the company is in talks for Microsoft to purchase TikTok operations in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“This new structure would build on the experience TikTok users currently love, while adding world-class security, privacy, and digital safety protections,” the tech giant said in its post.

TikTok and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

If it goes through, the acquisition could dramatically shift the Big Tech landscape, adding a legacy giant into the scramble for social media users’ attention. Microsoft, currently valued at $1.55 trillion, is one of the most valuable companies in the world and is one of the only ones positioned to take on such a purchase. Microsoft was conspicuously absent from a landmark antitrust hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, when Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon chief executives testified on their companies’ power.

Buying TikTok would put Microsoft in a powerful position to compete with Facebook and Google’s YouTube, which operate dominant social media sites. Microsoft has focused mainly on enterprise software for the past decade, though it does own professional networking site LinkedIn.

Its absence from the social media market could also make it more likely regulators will approve Microsoft buying TikTok.

If Microsoft buys TikTok, it would also solve an ongoing issue for Republicans and Trump, who has attacked TikTok as a prominent target in his crackdown against China amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The continuing discussions, which Microsoft said it expected to conclude by Sept. 15, hinged largely on buy-in from the Trump administration.

Trump told reporters Friday night that he planned to ban the app in the United States, and had earlier indicated he would do so in retaliation for what he saw as China’s role in spreading the coronavirus.

“As far as TikTok is concerned, we’re banning them from the United States,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on Friday.

But Saturday morning, TikTok officials were still waging a public campaign to garner favor with officials and fans, and assured users in a TikTok video that the platform was “here for the long run.” Passionate TikTok users took to the app all weekend to express their dismay and encourage their followers to find them on other social media sites.

Late last week, Trump was considering two main options to change the ownership of TikTok. One was through a process led by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which began investigating an acquisition by ByteDance of Musical.ly in 2017. The president considered signing an order to divest the company on Friday, according to the people familiar with the talks.

Trump also considered using a 2019 executive order to designate TikTok a national security threat and bar American companies and workers from doing business with it, the people said Friday.

Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have previously been critical of TikTok’s Chinese ownership, saying it’s a threat to national security and threatening to ban it. That prompted ByteDance to start to explore a sale, although the company would prefer to retain TikTok if possible, another person familiar with the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, previously told The Washington Post.

Microsoft said it informed the CFIUS of its TikTok talks. The company also said it might bring in other American investors to take a minority stake in TikTok as part of the deal.

Microsoft said in its blog that it would “ensure that all private data of TikTok’s American users is transferred to and remains in the United States.” Ensuring American data privacy has been a main crux of lawmaker’s arguments against Chinese ownership of TikTok.

TikTok has continually insisted that it already keeps U.S. user data stored in the country and that it does not hand over data to the Chinese government.

TikTok, which has been downloaded more than 2 billion times according to research firm Sensor Tower, lets users make short videos that show them dancing, cooking, pulling pranks or taking political stances. It is especially popular with teenage users, who have used the platform to take aim at Trump.

That included earlier this summer, when teens encouraged each other to reserve tickets to Trump’s June rally in Tulsa, hoping to inflate the expected number of attendees even though they never planned to show up. The Trump campaign said that it had no impact on the event.

Correction: Microsoft is one of the most valuable companies in the world. This article previously said it was the third most valuable company in the world.

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AirPods vs. AirPods Pro: Should you spend the extra $100?

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Apple currently makes two true wireless earbud models: the second-gen AirPods (which list for $159, but are generally sold for closer to $139 in the US) come with optional wireless charging, and the $249 AirPods Pro, which feature active noise cancellation. I personally prefer the AirPods Pro and rated them higher than the standard AirPods in my review. But they cost around $110 more than the base AirPods without wireless charging and not everyone likes their noise-isolating design, which leaves you with a silicone ear tip pushed slightly into your ear canal. The looser fit of the AirPods has its advantages if you don’t want to spend $250 on earphones, especially ones that are easy to lose. 

AirPods vs. AirPods Pro Comparison

AirPods AirPods Pro
List price $159 $249
Active noise cancellation No Yes
Noise-isolating design No Yes
Battery life (between in-case charges) 4.5 hours 5 hours
Wireless charging In $199 model Yes

That, in a nutshell, is why some people aren’t sure about which AirPods to buy. And while there are plenty of excellent non-Apple true wireless earbuds out there — just peruse my list of the best true wireless earbuds of 2020 — you’re presumably here because you’re on the fence about the AirPods or AirPods Pro. Let’s see if we can help you make a decision.

Read more: Best cheap true-wireless earbuds of 2020

Sarah Tew/CNET

Simply put, the main reason to buy the standard AirPods is to save money. The model with the regular charging case currently sells for $139 while the model with the wireless charging case sells for $169 ($199 if you buy at the Apple Store). Occasionally, the prices dip to $130 and you can find “renewed” options for as low as $120. I personally think wireless charging is a bit overrated (when it comes to headphones, anyway), so I wouldn’t pay the extra money for it. If I was buying the standard AirPods, my goal would be to pay as little as possible for them.

As I said, some people don’t like having silicone buds stuck in their ears. That’s the reason why so many people like the original AirPods. They just sort of nestle in your ear — and when they fit right, they’re really comfortable. And a few folks at CNET have told me that even though the AirPods Pro sounded better, they still preferred the fit of the regular AirPods.

I’m among those who can’t get the standard AirPods to stay in my ears securely without using third-party stabilizing wings (and you have to take off the wings to get the AirPods back in their charging case, which is a nuisance). That’s the main reason I prefer the AirPods Pro. 

The biggest drawback of the standard AirPods’ “open” design is that it allows ambient sound to leak in. They sound decent in quieter environments — and their performance as a headset for making calls is almost as good as the AirPods Pro — but the listening experience deteriorates in noisy environments.

Read our Apple AirPods 2019 review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The standard AirPods fit some people’s ears perfectly (some people have no trouble running with them), but plenty of people can’t get a secure fit. If you’re in the latter group, I highly recommend you spend the extra money on the AirPods Pro. The AirPods Pro design simply fits more ears than the original AirPods. I hesitate to call it a universal fit because there are always exceptions, but they’re close.

As noted, the only issue is that some people simply don’t like having silicone buds stuck in their ears, even if they’re as soft and pliant as these tips are. Also, some people are sensitive to the pressure sensation, albeit it slight, that’s a byproduct of active noise canceling.

The first thing you notice about the AirPods Pro is that they simply sound better than the standard AirPods because they have more bass. The reason they have more bass is largely due to their new noise-isolating design and new drivers that are tuned for that design. The standard AirPods sound decent enough in quiet places but due to their open design, they just don’t do well when confronted with external noise — the bass frequencies get drowned out. The AirPods’ noise cancellation, which is effective, also helps with external noise, and the combination of the seal of the tips and the ANC means they sound much better in noisier environments such as city streets.

The standard AirPods are quite good for making calls. With the release of the second-gen model last year — the ones discussed above — Apple improved their noise-reduction capabilities, particularly wind noise. The AirPods Pro have three microphones on each bud, one of which is a beamforming mic that’s designed to pick up your voice. They also have similar noise-reduction capabilities, plus a vent system that’s not only supposed to relieve some of the pressure that can build up in your ear from a noise-isolating design coupled with noise-canceling features, but can help cut down on wind noise a tad, an Apple rep told me. More importantly, you can simply hear callers better because of the Pros’ noise-isolating design.

The AirPods Pro will soon have another advantage. In June, Apple announced at its Worldwide Developers Conference that the AirPods Pro will get a big upgrade this fall with the release of iOS 14: a “spatial audio” feature that simulates surround sound. 

Both the AirPods and AirPods Pro will get automatic switching between Apple devices, another new feature in iOS 14, but only the AirPods Pro will get the virtual surround feature.

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

Read more: Apple’s new spatial audio feature should have Bose and Sony worried

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From Minecraft Tricks to Twitter Hack: A Florida Teen’s Troubled Online Path

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For Graham Ivan Clark, the online mischief-making started early.

By the age of 10, he was playing the video game Minecraft, in part to escape what he told friends was an unhappy home life. In Minecraft, he became known as an adept scammer with an explosive temper who cheated people out of their money, several friends said.

At 15, he joined an online hackers’ forum. By 16, he had gravitated to the world of Bitcoin, appearing to involve himself in a theft of $856,000 of the cryptocurrency, though he was never charged for it, social media and legal records show. On Instagram posts afterward, he showed up with designer sneakers and a bling-encrusted Rolex.

The teenager’s digital misbehavior ended on Friday when the police arrested him at a Tampa, Fla., apartment. Florida prosecutors said Mr. Clark, now 17, was the “mastermind” of a prominent hack last month, accusing him of tricking his way into Twitter’s systems and taking over the accounts of some of the world’s most famous people, including Barack Obama, Kanye West and Jeff Bezos.

His arrest raised questions about how someone so young could penetrate the defenses of what was supposedly one of Silicon Valley’s most sophisticated technology companies. Mr. Clark, who prosecutors said worked with at least two others to hack Twitter but was the leader, is being charged as an adult with 30 felonies.

Millions of teenagers play the same video games and interact in the same online forums as Mr. Clark. But what emerges in interviews with more than a dozen people who know him, along with legal documents, online forensic work and social media archives, is a picture of a youth who had a strained relationship with his family and who spent much of his life online becoming skilled at convincing people to give him money, photos and information.

“He scammed me for a little bit of money when I was just a kid,” said Colby Meeds, 19, a Minecraft player who said Mr. Clark stole $50 from him in 2016 by offering to sell him a digital cape for a Minecraft character but not delivering it.

Reached via a brief video call on Sunday from the Hillsborough County Jail in Tampa, Mr. Clark appeared in a black sleeveless shirt, his hair tumbling into his eyes. “What are your questions?” he asked, before pushing back his chair and hanging up. He is scheduled for a virtual court appearance on Tuesday.

Mr. Clark and his sister grew up in Tampa with their mother, Emiliya Clark, a Russian immigrant who holds certifications to work as a facialist and as a real estate broker. Reached at her home, his mother declined to comment. His father lives in Indiana, according to public documents; he did not return a request for comment. His parents divorced when he was 7.

Mr. Clark doted on his dog and didn’t like school or have many friends, said James Xio, who met Mr. Clark online several years ago. He had a habit of moving between emotional extremes, flying off the handle over small transgressions, Mr. Xio said.

“He’d get mad mad,” said Mr. Xio, 18. “He had a thin patience.”

Abishek Patel, 19, who played Minecraft with Mr. Clark, defended him. “He has a good heart and always looks out for the people who he cares about,” he said.

In 2016, Mr. Clark set up a YouTube channel, according to the social media monitoring firm SocialBlade. He built an audience of thousands of fans and became known for playing a violent version of Minecraft called Hardcore Factions, under user names like “Open” and “OpenHCF.”

But he became even better known for taking money from other Minecraft players. People can pay for upgrades with the game, like accessories for their characters.

One tactic used by Mr. Clark was appearing to sell desirable user names for Minecraft and then not actually providing the buyer with that user name. He also offered to sell the capes for Minecraft characters, but sometimes vanished after other players sent him money.

Mr. Clark once offered to sell his own Minecraft user name, “Open,” said Nick Jerome, 21, a student at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. The two messaged over Skype and Mr. Jerome, who was then 17, said he sent about $100 for the user name because he thought it was cool. Then Mr. Clark blocked him.

“I was just kind of a dumb teenager, and looking back, there’s no way I should have ever done this,” Mr. Jerome said. “Why should I ever have trusted this dude?”

In late 2016 and early 2017, other Minecraft players produced videos on YouTube describing how they had lost money or faced online attacks after brushes with Mr. Clark’s alias “Open.” In some of those videos, Mr. Clark, who can be heard using racist and sexist epithets, also talked about being home schooled while making $5,000 a month from his Minecraft activities.

Mr. Clark’s real identity rarely showed up online. At one point, he revealed his face and gaming setup online, and some players called him Graham. His name was also mentioned in a 2017 Twitter post.

Mr. Clark’s interests soon expanded to the video game Fortnite and the lucrative world of cryptocurrencies. He joined an online forum for hackers, known as OGUsers, and used the screen name Graham$. His OGUsers account was registered from the same internet protocol address in Tampa that had been attached to his Minecraft accounts, according to research done for The Times by the online forensics firm Echosec.

Mr. Clark described himself on OGUsers as a “full time crypto trader dropout” and said he was “focused on just making money all around for everyone.” Graham$ was later banned from the community, according to posts uncovered by Echosec, after the moderators said he failed to pay Bitcoin to another user who had already sent him money to complete a transaction.

Still, Mr. Clark had already harnessed OGUsers to find his way into a hacker community known for taking over people’s phone numbers to access all of the online accounts attached to the numbers, an attack known as SIM swapping. The main goal was to drain victims’ cryptocurrency accounts.

In 2019, hackers remotely seized control of the phone of Gregg Bennett, a tech investor in the Seattle area. Within a few minutes, they had secured Mr. Bennett’s online accounts, including his Amazon and email accounts, as well as 164 Bitcoins that were worth $856,000 at the time and would be worth $1.8 million today.

Mr. Bennett soon received an extortion note, which he shared with The Times. It was signed by Scrim, another of Mr. Clark’s online aliases, according to several of his online friends.

“We just want the remainder of the funds in the Bittrex,” Scrim wrote, referring to the Bitcoin exchange from which the coins had been taken. “We are always one step ahead and this is your easiest option.”

In April, the Secret Service seized 100 Bitcoins from Mr. Clark, according to government forfeiture documents. A few weeks later, Mr. Bennett received a letter from the Secret Service saying they had recovered 100 of his Bitcoins, citing the same code that was assigned to the coins seized from Mr. Clark.

It is unclear whether other people were involved in the incident or what happened to the remaining 64 Bitcoins.

Mr. Bennett said in an interview that a Secret Service agent told him that the person with the stolen Bitcoins was not arrested because he was a minor. The Secret Service did not respond to a request for comment.

By then, Mr. Clark was living in his own apartment in a Tampa condo complex. He had an expensive gaming setup, a balcony and a view of a grassy park, according to friends and social media posts.

Two neighbors said that Mr. Clark kept to himself, coming and going at unusual hours and driving a white BMW 3 Series.

On an Instagram account that has since been taken down, @error, Mr. Clark also shared videos of himself swaying to rap music in designer sneakers. He was given a shout-out on Instagram by a jeweler to the hip-hop elite, with a picture showing that Mr. Clark, as @error, had purchased a gem-encrusted Rolex.

Mr. Xio, who became close friends with Mr. Clark, said the April run-in with the Secret Service shook Mr. Clark.

“He knew he was given a second chance,” Mr. Xio said. “And he wanted to work on being as legit as possible.”

But less than two weeks after the Secret Service seizure, prosecutors said Mr. Clark began working to get inside Twitter. According to a government affidavit, Mr. Clark convinced a “Twitter employee that he was a co-worker in the IT department and had the employee provide credentials to access the customer service portal.”

For help, Mr. Clark found accomplices on OGUsers, according to the charging documents. The accomplices offered to broker the sale of Twitter accounts that had cool user names, like @w, while Mr. Clark would enter Twitter’s systems and change ownership of the accounts, according to the filings and accounts from the accomplices.

The hack unfolded on July 15. A few days later, one accomplice, who went by the name “lol,” told The Times that the person they knew as the mastermind began cheating the customers who wanted to covertly buy the Twitter accounts. The hacker took the money and handed over the account, but then quickly reclaimed it by using his access to Twitter’s systems to boot out the client. It was reminiscent of what Mr. Clark had done earlier on Minecraft.

When Mr. Clark’s online acquaintances learned he had been charged with the hack, several said they were not surprised.

“He never really seemed to care about anyone but himself,” said Connor Belcher, a gamer known as @iMakeMcVidz who had previously teamed up on a separate YouTube channel with Mr. Clark before becoming one of his online critics.

Susan Jacobson contributed reporting from Tampa, Fla. Sheelagh McNeil and Jack Begg contributed research.

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