Mar 12, 2024 - Technology

Bringing Washington's TikTok fears into focus

Illustration of an anvil swaying back and forth above the TikTok app icon.

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The intelligence community's annual global threats report is a stark reminder of what the fast-moving TikTok debate is actually about: China's advancing cyber prowess.

Why it matters: TikTok is activating a group of lobbyists and creators this week to convince lawmakers to vote against a bill aimed at forcing Chinese parent company ByteDance to divest its ownership in the platform.

Driving the news: Intelligence officials testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Monday about this year's annual worldwide threat assessment.

  • The assessment, which came out alongside the hearing, provides the clearest look at how the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI, the CIA and other agencies assess threats from nation-state adversaries — including China.

The big picture: Lawmakers' and regulators' concerns about TikTok have always stemmed from long-running fears about Beijing spying on the U.S. and influencing American opinion.

  • "The problem is not TikTok, it is the control by China," Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said during Monday's Senate hearing.

Zoom in: This year's worldwide threats assessment warned that China remains the "most active and persistent cyber threat to the U.S. government."

  • The intelligence community believes that if there is a major conflict between the U.S. and China — such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan — Beijing would pursue cyberattacks against American infrastructure and military assets.
  • "Such a strike would be designed to deter U.S. military action by impeding U.S. decision-making, inducing societal panic, and interfering with the deployment of U.S. forces," the report said.

The intelligence report also noted that the Chinese government created TikTok accounts to influence the 2022 U.S. midterm vote.

  • FBI director Christopher Wray told lawmakers Monday that TikTok's "parent company is, for all intents and purposes, beholden to the CCP."

The other side: China has denied that it interferes with U.S. elections.

  • TikTok had been working with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to mitigate national security concerns tied to ByteDance's ownership.
  • However, CFIUS and TikTok have not met in months, according to Axios Pro: Tech Policy reporter Ashley Gold.

What we're watching: Most of TikTok's offensive operations have focused on reminding lawmakers how much their constituents — especially young people — love the platform.

  • But most lawmakers will likely be looking to hear a rationale this week that instead addresses the growing tensions between the U.S. and China.
Go deeper