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TikTok should face national security investigation, senators say

TikTok launch party
The TikTok app, owned by the Chinese company Bytedance, has been downloaded more than 110 million times in the United States. Above, TikTok’s U.S. launch party in 2018.
(Joe Scarnici / Getty Images)

Chinese-owned video app TikTok may be a national security threat to the United States and should be investigated, two key senators said in a letter to the acting director of national intelligence.

“TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a letter Thursday to Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire.

TikTok, owned by the Chinese company Bytedance Inc., has been downloaded more than 110 million times in the United States and its growing popularity creates “national security risks,” the senators wrote. Their concerns include the safety of data on the platform, potential censorship and possible foreign influence campaigns in the U.S., they said.

The letter is part of growing pressure on the U.S. government to investigate ByteDance and, more broadly, step up efforts to review the potential security threats of Chinese technology. This month, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida wrote to the Treasury Department to ask for a national security investigation into ByteDance, which according to CB Insights is the world’s largest start-up, with a valuation of $75 billion.

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Schumer and Cotton warned Thursday that the Chinese government may compel TikTok to give it the data TikTok collects, which includes “user content and communications, IP address, location-related data, device identifiers, cookies, metadata, and other sensitive personal information.”

“Without an independent judiciary to review requests made by the Chinese government for data or other actions, there is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request,” the senators wrote. Even though TikTok says that it operates outside China and keeps U.S data in the United States, ByteDance must follow Chinese laws and turn over any data requested by the government, they added.

TikTok is a relatively rare example of a Chinese social media platform achieving global success. It is mostly known for lighthearted videos — including lip-syncing and dancing — uploaded by mostly teenage users. The app’s popularity showed signs of waning in the third quarter of the year, with global user downloads falling 4% from a year earlier.

Beyond the security of user data, TikTok could also be used to spread disinformation, similar to the campaign Russia waged in the United States before the last presidential election, the senators said. It is “a potential target of foreign influence campaigns like those carried out during the 2016 election on U.S.-based social media platforms,” they said in their letter.

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The senators said they also are concerned that the platform censors or manipulates content. “TikTok reportedly censors materials deemed politically sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party,” they said. This included “content related to the recent Hong Kong protests, as well as references to Tiananmen Square, Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, and the treatment of Uighurs.”

Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has also said the censored version of the internet could spread across the globe if other platforms do not fight for free speech. Six of the 10 largest internet platforms are Chinese, he said.

“Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free-expression values,” Zuckerberg said in an address at Georgetown University last week. “There’s no guarantee these values will win out.”


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