AMAC Exclusive – By Louis J. Senn
In recent weeks, Republican and Democrat lawmakers as well as top national security officials within the Biden administration have raised serious concerns that the Chinese government may be using TikTok, a popular social media app, to harvest and weaponize data from American users – something that former President Donald Trump warned about back in 2020. But even as Biden’s own advisors raise the alarm about the seriousness of this threat, he has stubbornly refused to take action.
TikTok was launched in 2016 and is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. It quickly rose to become the fastest growing app of all time, and has roughly 100 million downloads in the United States. More than two thirds of American teens are on the platform, which allows users to create short videos accompanied by popular songs or soundbites.
However, the app’s Chinese roots have lawmakers and foreign policy experts worried that the app could pose a serious threat to U.S. national security. According to a 2017 Chinese law, all Chinese businesses are required to assist the Chinese government with intelligence gathering and must share all of their data with Beijing. In practice, this could mean that ByteDance transmits to the Chinese government sensitive information collected from users’ phones that the CCP could use to build files on American users for blackmail, espionage, or other nefarious purposes. With many elected Democrats as well as high-ranking Biden administration officials on the platform, the idea that the Chinese government may be able to remotely access virtually all the information on any phone with TikTok downloaded on it should be deeply concerning.
Earlier this month, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI) introduced legislation which would ban TikTok and other Chinese-owned social media companies from operating in the United States. Senator Tom Cotton similarly tweeted that “Tik Tok is one of the most massive surveillance programs ever.” In an appearance on Fox News Sunday last week, Virginia Democrat Senator Mark Warner echoed that sentiment, saying that “TikTok is an enormous threat… all of that data that your child is inputting and receiving is being stored somewhere in Beijing.” Even the Director of the FBI said earlier this month that he was “extremely concerned” about the danger posed by TikTok to control data collection on millions of users.”
While fresh revelations about just how much data TikTok could be harvesting have thrust the debate over the app back into the national spotlight, national security concerns posed by the platform are nothing new. In August 2020, President Trump attempted to ban TikTok through an executive order. In his order, Trump cited the risks the app posed to national security due to TikTok’s automatic collection of “vast swaths of information from its users, including internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search history.”
In response, TikTok successfully filed suit to prevent the order from going into effect. Even after the election, as late as December 2020, the Trump administration was continuing to try to find a U.S. company to purchase TikTok’s American business in order to protect Americans’ data.
However, soon after taking office, President Biden reversed course and paved the way for TikTok to continue its U.S. operations. In July 2021, the Biden Administration and TikTok filed a mutual request to drop the lawsuit between the two parties stemming from Trump’s original executive order.
But that didn’t stop the damning stream of revelations about TikTok’s U.S. operations. Through leaked audio in June, ByteDance employees revealed that employees in China had access to all of the data. This seemingly contradicts TikTok’s assurances otherwise. After the leaks and other subsequent reports, this revelation led FCC commissioner Brendan Carr to request that Apple and Google remove TikTok from their respective app stores, stating that: “TikTok is not just another video app. That’s the sheep’s clothing. It harvests swaths of sensitive data that new reports show are being accessed in Beijing.”
Instead of taking action to address these serious concerns, Joe Biden only further embraced the platform – especially as the midterms approached and Democrats desperately needed high turn-out among the younger demographics who predominantly use the platform. In March, the White House infamously provided a briefing to “TikTok stars” on the war in Ukraine, hoping that the top users would peddle the administration’s version of events to their millions of followers. Then, in October, the White House again hosted nearly two dozen TikTok creators in an effort to sell its midterm message to young voters who are more likely to vote Democrat. This strategy led even the normally friendly Washington Post to call Biden and TikTok an “odd couple,” acknowledging that the White House views TikTok as an important political tool in spite of the national security risks it poses.
Democrats’ reliance on TikTok to communicate with younger voters raises other important questions about the potential for China to manipulate the social media feeds of millions of Americans to influence election outcomes.
Americans deserve to know that their government is committed to preventing foreign powers from harvesting their personal data for nefarious political purposes. They should feel confident using the internet without fear that they are serving the interests of U.S. adversaries. But until Biden ends his détente with TikTok – a détente driven, by all indications, for pure political gain – one of the world’s most popular social media platforms will remain an enormous vulnerability to U.S. national security.
Louis J. Senn is a lawyer living in Louisville, Kentucky. He previously served in the Trump administration.
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