FBI alleges TikTok poses national security concerns

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid were also on hand to discuss threats to the United States.

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The FBI chief said the bureau has “national security concerns” about US operations of TikTok, warning that the Chinese government could potentially use the popular video-sharing app to influence US users or control their devices.

The FBI has “a number of concerns,” Director Christopher Wray said during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on global threats Tuesday, just days after Republican lawmakers introduced a bill banning the nationwide application.

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

TikTok, which hit 1 billion monthly active users in September 2021, is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. Chinese national security laws can require foreign and domestic companies operating in the country to share their data with the government upon request, and there are concerns that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is using this broad authority to collect sensitive intellectual property, proprietary trade secrets and personal data.

TikTok has long said it stores US user data in the United States and does not comply with Chinese government content moderation requirements. But the company has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months, and in July it admitted that non-US employees did in fact have access to US user data.

Citing meeting audio leaks, Buzzfeed News reported in June that China-based ByteDance employees repeatedly accessed non-public data (like phone numbers and birthdays) of American TikTok users. Separately, Forbes reported in October that ByteDance planned to use TikTok “to monitor the personal location of specific US citizens,” which the denied company.

Wray told the hearing that Chinese law essentially requires companies to “do whatever the government wants them to do in terms of sharing information or serving as a tool for the Chinese government.”

“And so that’s a reason in itself to be extremely worried,” he added.

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

US concerns over TikTok are nothing new

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

The Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS), which conducts national security reviews of foreign company deals, ordered ByteDance to divest itself of TikTok in 2020. Then-President Donald Trump attempted to shut down the app in the US unless it originated from ByteDance but was challenged in court.

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

Asked during Tuesday’s hearing about the actions taken by the United States, Wray said the discussion was more appropriate for a classified executive. But he said the FBI’s foreign investment unit is involved in the CFIUS process.

“Our input would be factored into 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 deal goes beyond data security to address issues such as governance, content moderation and algorithmic transparency.

“As Director Wray clarified in his remarks, the FBI’s contribution is being considered as part of our ongoing negotiations with the US government,” the spokesperson wrote. “While we cannot comment on the details of these confidential discussions, we are confident that we are on track to fully satisfy all reasonable national security concerns of the United States.”

Some lawmakers are pushing for a ban

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

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

“It’s not something you would normally hear me say, but Donald Trump was right on TikTok years ago,” Warner told Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald. “If your country uses Huawei, if your kids are on TikTok… China’s ability to exert undue influence is a much greater challenge and a much more immediate threat than any kind of actual armed conflict.”

A week later, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr called on the government to ban TikTok in an interview with Axios. (In June, it urged Apple and Google to remove it from their app stores, citing its “pattern of surreptitious 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 that are effectively controlled by the CCP from operating. in the USA”.

They outlined their motivations and concerns in a recent Washington Post editorial.

On the one hand, lawmakers said the app can track users’ locations and collect internet browsing data even from unrelated websites – adding that Beijing could develop profiles on millions of Americans at blackmail or espionage purposes, as well as collecting sensitive national security information from the US government. employees.

They were also concerned about potential abuses of TikTok’s algorithm, specifically that it could “be used to subtly indoctrinate American citizens” into censoring certain videos and promoting others.

“TikTok has previously censored references to politically sensitive topics, including the treatment of workers in Xinjiang, China, and the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square,” they wrote. “He temporarily blocked an American teenager who was critical of the treatment of Uyghurs in China. In German videos about Chinese behavior towards Uyghurs, TikTok changed the captions for terms such as “re-education camp” and “labor camp”, replacing the words with asterisks.

Lawmakers called this an especially frightening prospect given how many adults get their news from TikTok.

But is this 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 communications infrastructure.

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

“This is something that has been very clearly stated time and time again, from the 2010 China Internet White Paper to the 2020 Hong Kong National Security Act, which allows oversight of national security interests outside of China,” she said. NPR morning edition.

That’s why she doesn’t think banning TikTok is the best solution – in fact, she likens it more to playing a mole game as China continues to expand its digital territory (TikTok is the app most popular Chinese language used by Americans, although there are others, such as WeChat).

“When we look at all these high-profile apps that are connected to Chinese companies, it’s actually almost absurd to ban just one when we see platforms in areas like precision agriculture, communications, games, all connected to Chinese companies,” she said. . “So what’s really important is to develop stronger data privacy regulations in the United States to protect users.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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