TikTok's long December – Washington Examiner

Pressure is mounting on popular video-sharing app TikTok in the United States over its ties to China, which some experts and lawmakers say pose a risk to national security.
Congress recently passed legislation that bans the social media platform on government devices, as have several states, while some in Washington seek to ban the app in the U.S. altogether.
The moves come amid growing concern from the U.S. intelligence community about TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance, and the possibility that the Chinese government could access millions of Americans through their mobile devices.
“We, the FBI, do have national security concerns about the app,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in early December. “Its parent company is controlled by the Chinese government. And it gives them the potential to leverage the app in ways that I think should concern us.”
The criticism also comes as the Biden administration negotiates a possible deal with the company to address national security concerns — a deal that could include forcing ByteDance to sell off its U.S. operations to an American company in order to continue operating in the U.S.
Though TikTok has started taking steps to wall off its U.S. operations from China, the growing scrutiny toward the app suggests an uncertain future for one of the world’s most popular social media platforms, which could be forced to undergo major changes in the year ahead. It also underscores increased bipartisan wariness among top U.S. officials toward China’s communist government.
The national security concerns are rooted in the Chinese government’s ability to force domestic companies to reveal user data and other sensitive information thanks to the country’s aggressive intelligence and counterespionage laws.
“Under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Beijing has been broadening its definition of national security and enacting far-reaching data regulations, thereby establishing a basis in Chinese law for accessing incredible amounts of data about people all over the world,” Aynne Kokas, director of the University of Virginia’s East Asia Center, wrote in the Journal of Democracy in October.
Though cybersecurity experts say many apps can pose a risk by collecting sensitive data or exposing the user to hacking, in TikTok’s case, the information could end up in the hands of the Chinese government.
Wray said Chinese officials could exploit ByteDance’s ownership of TikTok in multiple ways. “One, it gives them the ability to control the recommendation algorithm, which allows them to manipulate content and, if they want to, to use it for influence operations, which are a lot more worrisome in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party than whether or not you’re steering somebody as an influencer to one product or another,” Wray said during a talk at the University of Michigan.
“They also have the ability to collect data through it on users, which can be used for traditional espionage operations, for example,” Wray continued, adding that “they have, essentially, access to the software to devices.”
“So you’re talking about millions of devices, and that gives them the ability to engage in different kinds of malicious cyber activity through that,” he said. “All of these things are in the hands of a government that doesn’t share our values and that has a mission that’s very much at odds with what’s in the best interest of the United States.”
The short-form video app is no stranger to pushback in the U.S. In the years since TikTok exploded in popularity, experts and officials in Western countries have placed it under a microscope due to its links to China.
In the last year of his term, former President Donald Trump sought to ban TikTok through an executive order, citing the app’s Chinese ownership, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Since then, President Joe Biden has issued his own executive order that doesn’t name TikTok specifically but directs his administration to examine apps under the jurisdiction of foreign adversaries, including China, and the risk they pose to the U.S.
Meanwhile, a powerful interagency panel that evaluates foreign investment in the U.S. has been probing TikTok for years and is reportedly inching closer to a deal with the company, but concerns among key players remain.
That panel, known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or CFIUS, is chaired by the Treasury Department and comprises top administration officials from the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, Commerce, and more.
During the committee’s discussions, representatives from the Justice Department and Pentagon have advocated a forced sale, arguing that it’s the only way to cut China off truly from sensitive data and resolve national security concerns, the Wall Street Journal reported on Dec. 26.
“We’re talking about a government that, in our own intelligence community’s estimation, has a purpose to move global technology use and norms to privilege its own interests and its values, which are not consistent with our own,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco told the WSJ, declining to talk about TikTok specifically. “That’s the perspective I bring to these issues.”
TikTok has sought to reassure critics that American users are off-limits to China with plans to wall off U.S. data from Beijing. In June, BuzzFeed News published an investigation showing that ByteDance employees in China had repeatedly accessed American user data, despite the company’s guarantees otherwise.
That same day, TikTok published a blog post saying it was working with American software giant Oracle “to better safeguard our app, systems, and the security of U.S. user data” and that it was routing all U.S. user traffic to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure.
“In addition, we’re working closely with Oracle to develop data management protocols that Oracle will audit and manage to give users even more peace of mind,” the statement said.
More recently, TikTok announced that it was creating a new team within its U.S. Data Security department “to build further trust and confidence in the protection of U.S. user data and compliance.”
“The newly created USDS Trust and Safety team will work on compliance, safety strategies, and moderation for content involving U.S. users’ private data,” the company said. “Our Global Trust and Safety team will continue to develop global safety policies for the platform and oversee the moderation of content that does not involve U.S. users’ private data globally. Content policies and strategies developed by our global team will be reviewed and approved by USDS to ensure compliance with protocols being developed with the U.S. Government.”
But subsequent press reports have renewed scrutiny from lawmakers. On Dec. 22, Forbes reported that ByteDance determined that employees had spied on journalists who had written critically of the company.
“This new development reinforces serious concerns that the social media platform has permitted TikTok engineers and executives in the People’s Republic of China to repeatedly access private data of U.S. users despite repeated claims to lawmakers and users that this data was protected,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Forbes. “The DOJ has also been promising for over a year that they are looking into ways to protect U.S. user data from ByteDance and the CCP — it’s time to come forward with that solution or Congress could soon be forced to step in.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Warner’s Republican counterpart on the committee, recently introduced legislation to ban TikTok from the U.S. altogether. “The federal government has yet to take a single meaningful action to protect American users from the threat of TikTok,” Rubio said in a press release on Dec. 13. “This isn’t about creative videos — this is about an app that is collecting data on tens of millions of American children and adults every day. We know it’s used to manipulate feeds and influence elections. We know it answers to the People’s Republic of China. There is no more time to waste on meaningless negotiations with a CCP-puppet company.”
TikTok responded by criticizing the bill, saying that it “is troubling that rather than encouraging the administration to conclude its national security review of TikTok, some members of Congress have decided to push for a politically motivated ban that will do nothing to advance the national security of the United States.”
“We will continue to brief members of Congress on the plans that have been developed under the oversight of our country’s top national security agencies — plans that we are well underway in implementing — to further secure our platform in the United States,” TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter told media outlets at the time.
House Republicans probing TikTok have also expressed frustration with the company as a result of revelations in the press in recent months about the data it gathers on Americans — including those who do not use the app. “If true, these reports are deeply concerning and provide significant evidence that TikTok may have made misleading statements during its briefing with bipartisan Committee staff,” GOP Reps. James Comer (KY) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA) wrote to TikTok in November. Comer and McMorris Rodgers are the incoming chairs, respectively, of the House Oversight and Reform and Energy and Commerce committees.
The lawmakers also requested internal documents about “the corporate relationship between TikTok and ByteDance Ltd” and “data sharing and storing practices,” among other things.
With Republicans taking a firm stance toward China and regaining control of the House in January, the likelihood that TikTok will be in their crosshairs is high.
Members such as Comer and McMorris Rodgers will soon be armed with the subpoena and other investigative powers that come with taking over committee chairmanships.
“Republicans will hold TikTok accountable,” Comer said in October.


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