China’s national security restrictions heighten fears on TikTok

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Why is it significant?

Experts tell Axios that TikTok’s data privacy issues differ from those of American social media platforms, which gather user data and have grown to be havens for nation-state misinformation operations.

As stated by James Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador and current director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “it’s reasonable not to trust the Chinese and that’s why TikTok is in the crosshairs,” as reported to Axios.

Accusations that the CCP controls TikTok have been refuted.

Between the lines: TikTok is being unfairly singled out by those who oppose the recent House measure that might prohibit the app.

But in its yearly assessment of global threats, the U.S. intelligence community cautioned on Monday that China is currently the “most active and persistent cyber threat to the U.S. government.”

The big picture: While enacting a national privacy law in the United States would help limit the amount of user data that TikTok gathers, it would not solve Beijing’s increasing cybersecurity and security risks.

Zoom in: According to Nazak Nikakhtar, a former Trump Commerce official and partner at Wiley Rein LLP, ByteDance, which has its headquarters in Beijing, is subject to a set of rules that might grant the Chinese government access to private user data from TikTok users, even if it is held overseas, Axios said.

A national intelligence law enacted in 2017 mandates that people, groups, and establishments support China’s State Security and Public Security departments in their intelligence endeavors.

Legislation enacted in 2021 also mandates that companies collaborate with national security organizations to equip employees with counterespionage tools and train them to detect espionage.

Most businesses must create a Chinese Community Party presence within their corporation, according to a 1993 law. (A former official at ByteDance said in 2018 that the company’s CCP presence allowed for the viewing of user data from Americans.)

Due to its connections to China, the U.S. government has looked into other internet platforms before TikTok.

2020 saw the forced sale of Kunlun Tech’s majority share in the dating app Grindr by the Chinese gaming business because of worries about national security and data privacy.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) filed charges against a Zoom executive located in China in late 2020 for allegedly disclosing personal information to the Chinese government.

Additionally, in 2022, Chinese telecom firms ZTE and Huawei were essentially barred from operating in the US.

The mystery: According to news reports, intelligence officials’ statements, and legislators, ByteDance may previously have had to abide by these regulations.

According to a BuzzFeed News investigation based on 80 internal TikTok meetings, ByteDance personnel located in China have access to private information about TikTok users in the United States.

The Chinese government set up accounts on TikTok to influence the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, according to the intelligence community’s threat assessment.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told Axios’ Dan Primack, “The app collects way more information than it needs to feed its algorithm, and that information is available to the Chinese Communist Party upon request.”

On the other hand, China’s trade ministry spokesperson, He Yadong, told the Financial Times on Thursday that the US should “quit unfairly suppressing foreign companies.”

According to Bloomberg, TikTok also informed staff members in a memo this week that it had no intention of altering how it handles concerns about data privacy and national security.

Yes, but: analysts don’t think that TikTok’s ByteDance sale would end espionage problems.

According to Nikakhtar, the new proprietors of TikTok would have to thoroughly go through the source code to remove any back doors.