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Opinion TikTok, not Twitter, is the real menace

Shou Zi Chew, chief executive officer of TikTok Inc., speaks during the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore on Nov. 16,. (Bryan van der Beek/Bloomberg)

The panic over Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover is wildly overwrought. Ending woke censorship on the social media platform poses no threat to our democracy. What does threaten our way of life is not from Musk’s control of Twitter but Xi Jinping’s control of TikTok — the wildly popular social media app that the Chinese Communist Party is using to collect unprecedented reams of data on more than 100 million American users.

If you have a teenager in the family, TikTok is most likely in your online ecosystem — which means China is in there as well. Yet many Americans seem unbothered by Beijing’s infiltration of their virtual living rooms. Why, they wonder, should they care if China is watching their kids’ dance videos?

“It’s not just your dance videos,” says Klon Kitchen, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for national security technology and a former CIA officer focused on foreign influence operations. “It’s all of your contacts. It’s your GPS location. It’s your online viewing and shopping habits. It’s even your keyboard swipes and your off-app, online habits.” If you download TikTok on your phone, he told me in a recent podcast, you have given China the ability to track what other websites you go to and your key swipes when you are on those sites, which means “they know your username and they know your password, and they know texting content” — even if your text messages are encrypted.

Don’t take his word for it. In a joint letter to the Federal Trade Commission, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Vice Chairman Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote that TikTok’s “PRC-based employees [have] unfettered access to user information, including birthdates, phone numbers, and device identification information.” And Brendan Carr, the senior Republican on the Federal Communications Commission, wrote in June to Apple and Google urging them to remove TikTok from their app stores because it is a “sophisticated surveillance tool” that allows China to collect “everything from search and browsing histories to keystroke patterns and biometric identifiers, including faceprints — which researchers have said might be used in unrelated facial recognition technology — and voiceprints” as well as “location data … draft messages and metadata, plus … the text, images, and videos that are stored on a device’s clipboard.”

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All of this information is at the beck and call of the Chinese Communist Party. TikTok claims that it has never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would it do so if asked. But Kitchen tells me that is a dodge, because they are “required to build [their] networks in such a way as where the Chinese government has access [so] they don’t have to ask.” Moreover, he says, Chinese law — which the regime applies extraterritorially to all Chinese companies — requires those companies to make any data that they collect or have access to, regardless of where it is collected, processed or stored, be made available to the Chinese Communist Party. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed obtained recordings of 80 internal TikTok meetings, which showed that China has repeatedly accessed Americans’ user data — including one September 2021 meeting where a member of TikTok’s “Trust and Safety department” admitted that “everything is seen in China.”

What can China do with all the data it is hoovering up? For one thing, it is amassing compromising information on millions of Americans, which it can later use for national security or commercial espionage. The Chinese are collecting data that gives them unprecedented insight into how we think and behave — which they can then use for strategic influence operations against our country. And they have hooked millions of Americans on an information platform that China controls and censors. Today, more than a quarter of U.S. adults under 30 say they regularly get news from TikTok, meaning they are consuming information run through a filter controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

Americans would not tolerate their own government collecting so much sensitive personal information on them. So why do we tolerate a hostile foreign government doing so? When it was revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency was collecting metadata on U.S. telephone calls (phone records showing only which numbers were calling which numbers) in order to be able to connect the dots and stop terrorist attacks, there was widespread indignation — even though the program was authorized by Congress, collected no communications content, and was operated under the strict supervision of federal judges. Yet today, the Chinese Communist Party is collecting not just phone numbers but detailed “pattern of life” intelligence on more than 4 in 10 Americans, and all we hear are … crickets.

In 2020, President Donald Trump announced he was banning TikTok but backed off after he was shown polls that such a ban would hurt his standing with young voters. Joe Biden launched a security review in June 2021, but then simultaneously launched a campaign to woo TikTok influencers, including a White House meeting with the president — giving the presidential imprimatur to a platform that amounts to a Chinese mass-surveillance operation.

Now, Sen. Warner says, “Donald Trump was right … TikTok is an enormous threat.” If that’s the case, maybe we should stop worrying so much about Twitter, and focus instead on the clear and present social media danger to our country.

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