Unplugging TikTok is harder than it looks
In the summer of 2020, in full re-election mode and finding new ways to punish China, President Donald J. Trump threatened to cut off millions of U.S. man’s mobile phone. to US owners. The effort failed.
Now, more than two years later, after a lengthy study of how Chinese authorities use the app for everything from surveillance to information operations, the Biden administration is trying something strikingly similar. It’s better organized, vetted by lawyers and coordinated with new bills in Congress that appear to have strong bipartisan support.
Yet keeping TikTok safe from Chinese exploitation—as a tool for Chinese officials to spy on Americans’ tastes and whereabouts, as an entry point into the phones that encompass their entire lives, and as a way to spread disinformation—turned out to be more important than that. ugly.
Tensions over the app will peak when TikTok’s Singapore-based chief executive, Shou Chew, will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday, in a hearing that will provide Democrats and Republicans a rare direct expression of skepticism opportunity to the company.Tuesday, Mr. Zhou posted a TikTok The company’s main account claims that “some politicians” are trying to take the app away from its 150 million users in the US, including small businesses.
But after two years of negotiations with TikTok to establish new protections, it’s unclear what the company can do to satisfy the concerns of U.S. intelligence agencies, beyond handing over the entire operation to the Americans. The Justice Department’s No. 2 and others have effectively rejected an offer from TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, to address those concerns.
Any decision to remove the app, whether by banning it from its 150 million US users or blocking further downloads, would be politically contentious for Mr Biden. The political dilemma was best summed up by Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who is at the center of new export controls on Chinese high-tech products.
“My politicians think you’re going to lose all voters under 35 forever,” she told Bloomberg News recently.
Ms. Raimondo and other officials were quick to add that bad politics is no reason to drop a blanket ban if national security threats demand it. Some of the world’s largest news organizations, including The New York Times, now have TikTok accounts, compounding the issue, meaning shutting down the app appears to be shutting down the flow of fact-based news to counter Chinese disinformation information.
“A lot of it is cockfighting,” said James A. Lewis, who directs the Cyber Threats Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But he believes Mr Biden has a better chance of success than his predecessor.
“Unlike the Trump administration, which I think has a chance of winning — the attitude toward China has changed,” he said. Several new bills that would explicitly give the president new powers to shut down TikTok in different ways have bipartisan support. They were driven by the intelligence community’s conclusion, contained in a global threat assessment submitted to Congress, that China remained the “broadest, most active and most persistent” cyber threat to the country.
So far, however, the threat from TikTok has been mostly theoretical.
There have been cases of abuse, including efforts to geolocate journalists who published leaked information about companies. But the government has yet to provide comprehensive declassified evidence of the systematic use of the app to advance Chinese government payments.
That hasn’t stopped nearly 30 states from banning TikTok on official government or contractor phones, and federal employees have been asked to delete it — though not on their personal devices.
There are three distinct areas of concern. The first is where TikTok stores its US user data. Until recently, much of that content was on servers operated by ByteDance in Singapore and Virginia, which many feared would allow China to demand that TikTok hand over user data under Beijing’s national security laws. This year, TikTok tried to pre-empt it, saying it would delete the data of its U.S. users from ByteDance servers and transfer them to servers run by U.S. cloud computing company Oracle.
Then there’s the harder question — who will write the algorithm, TikTok’s secret sauce code. The code evaluates the user’s choices and uses them to select more material to suit the user’s needs—a favorite dance routine, or perhaps an interesting news story. These algorithms are written in China, with Chinese engineers refining the art of giving users what they want to see. Matt Perault and Samm Sacks recently wrote on the Lawfare blog that there is concern that “TikTok may unilaterally decide to prioritize content that threatens or destabilizes the United States.” Again, it hasn’t happened, at least not through TikTok.
Finally, there’s the question of whether an app whose algorithms few understand could be a gateway into Americans’ phones for outsiders, including China’s Ministry of State Security — not to learn their dance preferences, but to learn Their great wealth is the data they carry in their hip pockets.
In November, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray warned The Chinese government can use TikTok’s algorithms to conduct “influence operations.” General Paul Nakasone, Commander of U.S. Cyber Command and Director of the National Security Agency, responded to these concerns This month, he said “it’s not just because you can influence something, but when you have such a large audience, you can also turn off the message.”
TikTok has attempted to respond to misinformation concerns with a long list of updated video moderation policies, including new restrictions and labeling rules for deepfakes — highly realistic fake videos created using artificial intelligence. For example, TikTok does not allow deepfakes of private figures, and would ban deepfakes of public figures if the content is used for endorsements. It also provided more details on how it would “protect citizens and electoral integrity.”
A spokesperson for TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.
The debate surrounding the app has become a thorny legal issue by the time Biden takes over from Trump in 2021.
A federal court ruled that Mr. Trump did not have the authority to enforce his proposal to ban the app from Apple and Google’s app stores, depriving the White House of the key leverage it used to get ByteDance to consider selling TikTok.
Mr. Biden issued an executive order in June 2021 rescinding Mr. Trump’s threat of a ban. He preserved the order for ByteDance to divest the app. But staffers at a group of federal agencies that vet foreign companies in the United States, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, are considering a third option: negotiating a deal with TikTok that would address national security concerns but not force ByteDance to sell the app.
Under its latest proposal, TikTok would not only store U.S. user data on Oracle servers in the U.S.; the cloud computing company would also monitor its content recommendation algorithm — a hedge TikTok says prevents the app from being used to spread the word publicity. The entity managing the app in the U.S. will be overseen by a three-person government-approved committee.
But the proposal did not please Washington hawks. Some in the administration — including Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco — worried that the terms were not strict enough. The government is also under increasing pressure from lawmakers who say the app should be banned entirely.
Now, the Biden administration is pursuing a new strategy.
Earlier this month, it publicly supported legislation from a bipartisan group of senators that would have given the Commerce Department clearer powers to ban the app, potentially restoring government leverage over ByteDance. Government officials have privately told TikTok they want its Chinese ownership to sell the app or face a possible ban. If passed, the legislation would significantly strengthen the government’s powers to force sales.
Peter Harrell, an attorney and former senior director for international economics and competitiveness at the National Security Council, said the proposed legislation is “important because the United States needs some clear legal agency to police and enforce the existing laws as it deals with TikTok and other Chinese apps.” non-existent behavior”.
A White House spokesman declined to comment other than to point to its existing support for the legislation.
At times, TikTok undercuts its own arguments. It has said it will not hand over information about its users to the Chinese government — although China’s national security law explicitly requires it to do so if its Chinese employees are ordered to do so by national intelligence.
when forbes Report In October, when a Chinese team at ByteDance planned to use TikTok to monitor the location of some Americans, TikTok’s communications team responded on Twitter that the publication’s work lacked “rigor and journalistic integrity.” It also said TikTok “has never been used to ‘target'” American politicians or journalists.
Two months later, ByteDance admitted that four of its employees, including two in China, had obtained the IP addresses and other data of two journalists, as well as some people connected to the journalists through TikTok accounts. Employees sought to determine whether those individuals had met with ByteDance employees so they could try to identify the source of the leaks to reporters.
TikTok deemed the case an anomaly and fired the employee. It said it had systems in place to prevent a recurrence. There is no doubt that similar privacy breaches have occurred in US companies.
But in the current climate in Washington, especially after the shooting down of a Chinese surveillance balloon crossing the United States in January, any evidence of Chinese surveillance would fuel a strong bipartisan desire to crack down on China’s entry points into American networks. Of these, none is bigger or more influential than TikTok, which is why the path the administration takes in the coming months could set a precedent that goes far beyond TikTok’s immediate fate.
Julian Barnes Reporting from Washington.