Mar 15, 2024 - Technology

China's national security laws are fueling TikTok fears

Illustration of the Chinese flag with the stars rendered in TikTok's logo style.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The move toward a TikTok ban took off like a rocket on Capitol Hill this week, but the FBI has warned for years that TikTok could pose national security risks.

Why it matters: American social media sites collect data about users and have become breeding grounds for nation-state disinformation campaigns, but experts tell Axios that the data privacy concerns facing TikTok are different.

What they're saying: "It's reasonable not to trust the Chinese [government] and that's why TikTok is in the crosshairs," James Lewis, a former U.S. diplomat and current director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' strategic technologies program, told Axios.

  • TikTok has denied accusations that the CCP controls it.

Between the lines: Those who oppose the recent House bill that could ban the app say TikTok is being unfairly targeted.

  • But the U.S. intelligence community warned Monday in its annual worldwide threats assessment that China is now the "most active and persistent cyber threat to the U.S. government."

The big picture: While passing a national privacy law in the U.S. would help curb what information TikTok collects about users, such a law wouldn't address Beijing's growing espionage and cybersecurity threats.

Zoom in: ByteDance, which is headquartered in Beijing, is beholden to a group of laws that could give the Chinese government access to sensitive TikTok user data, even if it's stored elsewhere, Nazak Nikakhtar, a former Trump Commerce official and partner at Wiley Rein LLP, told Axios.

  • A 2017 national intelligence law requires individuals, organizations and institutions to assist China's Public Security and State Security offices in their intelligence work.
  • A 2021 law also requires that businesses work with national security agencies to train staff to detect espionage and provide them with counter-espionage equipment.
  • A 1993 law requires the vast majority of companies to establish a Chinese Community Party presence in its organization. (A former ByteDance executive has alleged that the company's CCP presence could view U.S. user data back in 2018.)

Flashback: TikTok isn't the first online platform to come under U.S. government scrutiny because of its ties to China.

  • Chinese gaming company Kunlun Tech was forced to sell its majority stake in dating app Grindr in 2020 due to data privacy and national security concerns.
  • In late 2020, the DOJ charged a China-based executive at video-conferencing platform Zoom for sharing private data with the Chinese government.
  • And Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE were effectively banned from the United States in 2022.

The intrigue: News investigations, intelligence officials' comments and lawmakers have suggested that ByteDance has already had to comply with these laws.

  • A BuzzFeed News investigation based on 80 internal TikTok meetings showed that China-based ByteDance employees have accessed nonpublic data about U.S. TikTok users.
  • The intelligence community's threat assessment also disclosed that the Chinese government created accounts on TikTok to influence the 2022 U.S. midterm elections.
  • "The app collects way more information than it needs to to feed its algorithm, and that information is available to the Chinese Communist Party upon request," Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told Axios' Dan Primack.

The other side: He Yadong, spokesperson for China's commerce ministry, told the Financial Times Thursday that the United States needs to "stop unfairly suppressing foreign companies."

  • TikTok also told employees in a memo this week that it doesn't plan to change the way it addresses national security and data privacy concerns, according to Bloomberg.

Yes, but: Experts doubt that a ByteDance sale of TikTok would resolve espionage threats.

  • The new TikTok owners would need to completely scrub the source code for any back doors, Nikakhtar said.
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