It’s always been evident that cryptic malevolence lurks beneath the blasted “Johnny Johnny no Papa” TikTok meme. That peril may be national security risks.
Trailing the Department of Commerce’s growing blacklist of Chinese tech companies, senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) sent a letter yesterday asking Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire to assess potential cybersecurity threats posed by the Chinese app TikTok and other China-owned apps and platforms. “With over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” they write. The senators note that while TikTok, which is owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance, claims not to operate in China, it is required to follow Chinese law. They write:
TikTok’s terms of service and privacy policies describe how it collects data from its users and their devices, including user content and communications, IP address, location-related data, device identifiers, cookies, metadata, and other sensitive personal information. While the company has stated that TikTok does not operate in China and stores U.S. user data in the U.S., ByteDance is still required to adhere to the laws of China.
Security experts have voiced concerns that China’s vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. 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.
They also worry that the platform could be used to spread political propaganda campaigns.
In September, the Guardian reported that ByteDance “is advancing Chinese foreign policy aims abroad” by censoring criticism of the Chinese government and mentions of Tiananmen Square and Tibet, amongst various topics which typically displease the Communist Party of China. ByteDance told the Guardian that the leaked guidelines are outdated. In February, the FTC fined Musical.ly (TikTok’s former iteration) $5.7 million for allegedly failing to obtain parental consent before collecting data on children, including locations, email address, phone numbers, first and last names, and profile pictures.
Senator Cotton–whose name has been floated as a 2024 presidential hopeful–has been particularly vocal about the “Communist Party’s dystopian surveillance state” lately and has increasingly joined in the foolproof strategy of hitting the tech industry punching bag.