The FBI claims TikTok raises national security concerns

The head of the FBI says the bureau has “national security concerns” over TikTok’s US operations and warns the Chinese government could potentially use the popular video-sharing app to influence American users or control their devices.

The FBI has “a number of concerns,” Director Christopher Wray said Tuesday before a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on global threats, just days after Republican lawmakers introduced a bill that would ban the app statewide.

“They include the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection from millions of users, or the recommendation algorithm that could be used to influence operations if it so chooses, or to control software on millions of devices, whatever it is.” presents an opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices,” Wray said.

TikTok, which reached 1 billion monthly active users in September 2021, is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. Chinese national security laws can force foreign and domestic companies operating in the country to provide their data to the government upon request, and there are concerns that China’s ruling Communist Party is using this sweeping power to protect sensitive intellectual property, proprietary trade secrets and to collect personal data.

TikTok has long stated that it stores US user data within the US and does not comply with the Chinese government’s content moderation requirements. But the company has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months, and in July it acknowledged that non-US employees did indeed have access to US user data.

Buzzfeed News reported in June, citing leaked meeting audio, that China-based ByteDance employees have repeatedly accessed non-public data (like phone numbers and birthdays) of US TikTok users. Separately, forbes reported in October that ByteDance planned to use TikTok “to monitor the personal location of some certain American citizens,” which the company rejected.

Wray said at the hearing that Chinese law essentially requires companies to “do whatever the government wants them to share information or serve as a tool of the Chinese government.”

“And that alone is reason enough to be very concerned,” he added.

The FBI has shifted its focus to China in recent years. In July, Wray said China was the “biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security” and accused Beijing of interfering in the recent election.

US concerns about TikTok are not new

Various government officials have issued similar warnings over the years, and two presidential administrations have attempted to address these security concerns in different ways.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which conducts national security reviews of foreign company businesses, ordered ByteDance to separate from TikTok back in 2020. Then-President Donald Trump tried to have the app shut down in the US unless it forked from ByteDance, but was challenged in court.

President Biden paused those efforts when he took office, but his administration has continued to engage in national security negotiations with the company. The New York Times reported in September that CFIUS and TikTok had reached a tentative agreement on safeguards that would satisfy the US

When asked at Tuesday’s hearing what action the US is taking, Wray said the discussion was more suited to a classified setting. But he said the FBI’s foreign investment division is involved in the CFIUS process.

“Our input would be taken into account in any agreement that might be reached to resolve the issue,” he added.

A TikTok spokesperson confirmed this in a statement emailed to NPR on Wednesday, adding that the proposed agreement goes beyond data security and addresses issues such as governance, content moderation and algorithmic transparency.

“As Director Wray noted in his remarks, the FBI’s input will be viewed as part of our ongoing negotiations with the US government,” the spokesman wrote. “While we cannot comment on the details of these confidential talks, we are confident that we are on track to fully address all reasonable US national security concerns.”

Some lawmakers are pushing for a ban

The idea of ​​a TikTok ban appears to be gaining traction again.

In late October, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) said the app raised privacy and security concerns among Americans — and went a step further by praising Trump’s approach.

“You wouldn’t normally hear me say this, but Donald Trump was right on TikTok years ago,” Warner told Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald. “If your country is using Huawei, if your kids are on TikTok… the possibility for China to exert undue influence is a far greater challenge and a far more immediate threat than any sort of actual armed conflict.”

A week later, in an Axios interview, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr urged the government to ban TikTok. (In June he urged Apple and Google removing them from their app stores, citing their “pattern of clandestine data practices”.)

Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mike Gallagher — both Republicans — introduced legislation they say would ban TikTok “and other social media companies effectively controlled by the CCP from operating in the United States “.

They outlined their motivations and concerns in a recent statement Washington Post op ed.

For one, lawmakers said the app can track users’ locations and collect Internet browsing data even from unrelated websites — adding that Beijing can profile millions of Americans for purposes of blackmail or espionage and steal sensitive national security information from the US government could collect employees.

They also worried about potential abuse of the TikTok algorithm, and specifically that it “could be used to subtly indoctrinate American citizens” by censoring some videos and promoting others.

“TikTok has previously censored references to politically sensitive issues, including the treatment of workers in Xinjiang, China, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests,” they wrote. “It temporarily blocked an American teenager who has criticized the treatment of Uyghurs in China. In German videos about Chinese behavior towards Uyghurs, TikTok has changed subtitles for terms like ‘re-education camp’ and ‘labor camp’ and replaced words with asterisks.”

Lawmakers called this a particularly frightening prospect considering how many adults get their messages from TikTok.

But is it the best solution?

Aynne Kokas, professor of media studies and director of the East Asia Center at the University of Virginia, describes TikTok as both an entertainment platform and a form of critical communication infrastructure.

And she says it’s “part of a larger effort by the Chinese government to extend extraterritorial control over digital platforms.”

“This has been very clearly articulated time and time again, from the 2010 White Paper on the Internet in China to the 2020 Hong Kong National Security Law, which allows monitoring of national security interests outside of China,” she tells NPRs morning edition.

Because of this, she doesn’t think banning TikTok is the best solution — in fact, she compares it more to a mole game as China continues to expand its digital territory (TikTok is the most popular Chinese app used by Americans, although there are others , like WeChat).

“When we look at all these wide-ranging apps that are linked to Chinese companies, actually it almost makes no sense to ban just one when we see platforms in areas like precision farming, communications, gaming, all of which are linked to Chinese companies,” she says . “So what’s really important is the development of more robust privacy regulations in the United States to protect users.”

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