“Parents, if you don’t know what TikTok is, you should. It’s a Chinese-owned social media platform so popular among teens that Mark Zuckerberg is reportedly spooked,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said at a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism. “For Facebook, the fear is lost social media market share. For the rest of us, the fear is somewhat different. A company compromised by the Chinese Communist Party knows where your children are, knows what they look like, what their voices sound like, what they’re watching and what they share with each other.”
If that sounds alarmist, it’s because the facts are alarming. Representatives from TikTok and Apple (which was also invited to Hawley’s hearing) declined to testify at Hawley’s hearing, but TikTok defended itself in a statement Hawley read at the hearing.
“No governments, foreign or domestic, direct how we moderate TikTok content. TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China or any countries. We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked,” their statement said.
“The former employees said their attempts to persuade Chinese teams not to block or penalize certain videos were routinely ignored, out of caution about the Chinese government’s restrictions and previous penalties on other ByteDance apps,” The Post reported.
ByteDance is the Chinese tech giant that owns TikTok. In September, the Guardian reported on internal guidelines that revealed ByteDance had instructed the censorship of content related to Tibet, the Tiananmen Square massacre and the Falun Gong religious sect. Chinese tech firms know the punishment if they don’t implement the censorship on their own; the government doesn’t even have to ask.
And, as Hawley pointed out, no Chinese company can credibly claim it would refuse a request for data on its users if it got a “knock on the door” from Chinese authorities. That’s why the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) opened an investigation into ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, which it renamed TikTok.
Anyone who doesn’t understand that all Americans’ data held by a Chinese tech firm is susceptible to Chinese government exploitation has “a fundamental misunderstanding of how the government in Beijing works,” Klon Kitchen, tech policy lead at the Heritage Foundation, testified at Tuesday’s hearing.
TikTok is only the latest Chinese-owned tech firm operating in the United States to be caught taking direction from its superiors in Beijing after claiming it wouldn’t. . When Chinese tech giant Kunlun took over the gay dating app Grindr, it gave access of its user database to engineers in Beijing for a period of several months, NBC later revealed.
CFIUS is compelling Kunlun to sell Grindr and ordering it to keep all U.S. user data in the United States. But it’s too late. Once the sexual identity, habits and health statuses of millions of Americans are in Chinese hands, they can never be taken back. There’s zero doubt that Beijing is feeding all that information into the database it’s building to advance its own interests at our expense.
The implications are chilling. Just think if Beijing cross-referenced Grindr user data with the 22 million secret files on Americans China stole from the Office of Personnel Management in a 2015 hack. The intelligence advantages are obvious and dangerous.
That naturally brings up the question of what can be done apart from banning Chinese tech firms from operating inside the United States, which would be drastic and have unintended consequences. William A. Carter, deputy director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, testified that the U.S. government must drastically increase its efforts to help companies protect Americans’ data, punish those who don’t, and work to establish and enforce international norms in this area.
But it’s not just about Americans’ past behavior and data; it’s also about the future information environment. In her company’s statement, TikTok’s U.S. general manager, Vanessa Pappas, identified a future risk in Chinese control over U.S. social media networks: the potential for covert election interference.
“TikTok team, senior staff and myself understand the importance of building a close and transparent working relationship with regulators and lawmakers,” she wrote. “This will be increasingly important during the upcoming U.S. election season.”
In other words, if Beijing can censor what Americans see in their social media streams on Tibet, they could censor what we see about President Trump, Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren just as easily. We would never know. The algorithms are secret. There is no transparency. And based on the record of the Chinese government and Chinese tech firms, we would be stupid to just take their word for it.