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GOP debate raises questions over Airbnb sharing user data with China

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Foreign policy was a prominent subject during the Nov. 8 Republican presidential primary debate. The discussions ranged from the wars in Israel and Ukraine to growing threats from Iran and North Korea. However, the candidates agreed that the greatest long-term threat to America is China.

When discussing TikTok — a social media app with connections to China — the politicians were largely aligned on banning the app.

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However, Vivek Ramaswamy said that while TikTok may be the platform in the spotlight, other apps and online services also pose national security risks due to their ties to China.

“We have to ban any U.S. company actually transferring U.S. data to the Chinese,” Ramaswamy said. “Here’s a story most people don’t know. Airbnb hands over U.S. user data to the CCP. Now that’s a U.S.-owned company.”

Ramaswamy claimed that data-sharing has become so widespread that “even U.S. companies in Silicon Valley are regularly doing it.”

Airbnb has a complicated history with China.

According to a 2020 Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing concerning the company going public, Airbnb “has been transparent with users since 2016 about its information sharing with Chinese authorities.”

That year, Airbnb employees told The Wall Street Journal that a top executive resigned in 2019 due to the company’s relationship with China.

Sean Joyce was the chief trust officer for six months before he said the company’s data-sharing practices did not sit well with him.

Joyce said the personal data shared included phone numbers, email addresses and messages. He expressed concerns the data-sharing would enable the Chinese government to spy on users and “better anticipate guests’ movements and ascertain their travel itineraries and future locations.”

In the SEC filings, Airbnb said it could “lose the ability to operate in China if it doesn’t comply with the country’s data-sharing requirements.”

At the time, the business was booming with around 400,000 active listings, but the arrival of the pandemic changed how Airbnb operated. The company pulled its business from China after two years of lockdowns. Domestic listings plummeted and accounted for less than 1% of its global revenue.

Now its business with China is with outbound travelers.

It is unclear if China is still receiving data from the company since Airbnb took down all listings in the country. Looking at Airbnb’s data-sharing policy, it is clear that Airbnb still shares user data with third parties.

However, we may share personal information, such as your location, listings you’ve checked on or viewed, or your device information with certain third parties to perform targeted advertising or data analytics, which could be characterized as “selling,” “sharing” or “targeted advertising.

Airbnb Data-Sharing Policy

However, it hasn’t been confirmed whether the third parties receiving the data have ties to China.

“We do not sell personal information to third parties,” Airbnb’s data-sharing policy reads. “However, we may share personal information, such as your location, listings you’ve checked on or viewed, or your device information with certain third parties to perform targeted advertising or data analytics, which could be characterized as ‘selling,’ ‘sharing’ or ‘targeted advertising.'”

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[KARAH RUCKER]

IN LAST NIGHT’S PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY DEBATE, THERE WAS MUCH TO DISCUSS ON THE FOREIGN POLICY FRONT.

THERE IS A WAR IN ISRAEL – A WAR IN UKRAINE – GROWING THREATS FROM IRAN AND NORTH KOREA.

BUT STILL, THE REPUBLICAN CANDIDATES AGREED THE GREATEST LONG-TERM THREAT TO AMERICA IS COMMUNIST CHINA.

WHEN DISCUSSING TIK TOK, THE CANDIDATES WERE LARGELY ALIGNED TO BAN THE APP.

BUT VIVEK RAMASWAMY SAYS WHILE TIKTOK MAY BE THE ONE IN THE SPOTLIGHT, OTHER APPS AND ONLINE SERVICES  ALSO POSE NATIONAL SECURITY RISKS FOR TIES TO CHINA.

[VIVEK RAMASWAMY | PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE]

“WE HAVE TO BAN ANY U.S. COMPANY ACTUALLY TRANSFERRING U.S. DATA TO THE CHINESE. HERE’S A STORY MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW. AIRBNB HANDS OVER U.S. USER DATA TO THE CCP. NOW THAT’S A U.S. OWNED COMPANY.”

“EVEN U.S. COMPANIES IN SILICON VALLEY ARE REGULARLY DOING IT.”

[KARAH RUCKER]

WITH SUCH AN ALARMING CLAIM, WE WANTED TO LOOK INTO WHETHER AIR-B-N-B REALLY DOES “HAND OVER U.S. USER DATA TO CHINA.”

WHILE IT’S UNCLEAR IF AIRBNB STILL SENDS USERS’ PERSONAL INFORMATION TO CHINA, THE VACATION RENTAL COMPANY DOES HAVE A COMPLICATED HISTORY WITH CHINA.

ACCORDING TO AN SEC FILING FROM 2020 CONCERNING THE COMPANY FIRST GOING “PUBLIC,” THE FILING STATED AIRBNB “HAS BEEN TRANSPARENT WITH USERS SINCE 2016 ABOUT ITS INFORMATION SHARING WITH CHINESE AUTHORITIES.”

THAT YEAR, AIRBNB EMPLOYEES TOLD THE WALL STREET JOURNAL BECAUSE OF AIR-B-N-B’S RELATIONSHIP WITH CHINA, A TOP EXECUTIVE RESIGNED FROM THE COMPANY IN 20-19.

SEAN JOYCE WAS THE “CHIEF TRUST OFFICER” FOR SIX MONTHS BEFORE HE SAID THE COMPANY’S DATA SHARING PRACTICES DID NOT SIT WELL WITH HIM.

JOYCE SAID THE PERSONAL DATA SHARED INCLUDED PHONE NUMBERS, EMAIL ADDRESSES AND MESSAGES.

JOYCE EXPRESSED CONCERNS THE DATA-SHARING WOULD ENABLE THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT TO SPY ON USERS AND “BETTER ANTICIPATE GUESTS’ MOVEMENTS AND ASCERTAIN THEIR TRAVEL ITINERARIES AND FUTURE LOCATIONS.

ACCORDING TO SEC FILINGS, AIRBNB SAID IT COULD “LOSE THE ABILITY TO OPERATE IN CHINA IF IT DOESN’T COMPLY WITH THE COUNTRY’S DATA-SHARING REQUIREMENTS.

THERE WAS A LOT ON THE LINE BECAUSE AT THE TIME ITS BUSINESS WAS BOOMING WITH NEAR 400,000 ACTIVE LISTINGS.

THEN CAME THE PANDEMIC WHICH CHANGED EVERYTHING.

AIRBNB PULLED ITS BUSINESS FROM CHINA AFTER TWO YEARS OF LOCKDOWNS. DOMESTIC LISTINGS PLUMMETED AND ACCOUNTED FOR LESS THAN 1% OF ITS GLOBAL REVENUE.

NOW ITS BUSINESS WITH CHINA IS WITH OUTBOUND TRAVELERS.

IT’S UNCLEAR IF CHINA IS STILL RECEIVING DATA FROM THE COMPANY SINCE AIRBNB TOOK DOWN ALL LISTINGS IN THE COUNTRY, BUT IT IS CLEAR AIRBNB STILL SHARES USER DATA WITH THIRD PARTIES.

WE JUST CAN’T CONFIRM EITHER WAY WHETHER THIRD PARTIES RECEIVING THE DATA HAVE TIES TO CHINA.

HERE IS HOW AIRBNB’S DATA SHARING POLICY READS.

QUOTE – WE DO NOT SELL PERSONAL INFORMATION TO THIRD PARTIES. HOWEVER, WE MAY SHARE PERSONAL INFORMATION, SUCH AS YOUR LOCATION, LISTINGS YOU’VE CLICKED ON OR VIEWED, OR YOUR DEVICE INFORMATION WITH CERTAIN THIRD PARTIES TO PERFORM TARGETED ADVERTISING OR DATA ANALYTICS, WHICH COULD BE CHARACTERIZED AS “SELLING,” “SHARING” OR “TARGETED ADVERTISING”.

TO RAMASWAMY’S POINT – TAKING TIK TOK OUT OF THE CONVERSATION –THERE IS A BROADER ISSUE OF U.S. DATA BEING ACCESSIBLE TO THE WORLD.

EARLIER THIS WEEK WE TOLD YOU ABOUT DATA BROKERS SELLING PERSONAL INFORMATION BELONGING TO MILITARY MEMBERS TO UNVETTED BUYERS OVERSEAS.

YOU CAN FIND THAT STORY AT SAN DOT COM.