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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Political and economic motivations behind a sale or shutdown of TikTok in the U.S. are obscuring sincere security concerns raised by the rise of the Chinese-owned social video app.

The big picture: U.S. intelligence officials evince deep worry over Chinese companies’ ability to resist Beijing’s demands for data.

Where it stands: TikTok as it’s used by most Americans — for memeable short videos of people dancing, joking and lip-syncing to other videos — doesn’t immediately scream security risk.

  • But national security officials worry that Beijing, should it compel TikTok parent ByteDance to turn over data, could still farm the app for intelligence-gathering purposes.

TikTok data could…

  • Reveal users’ locations, personally identifiable information and larger social networks to Beijing’s spies. That in turn could help Chinese intelligence agencies hunt down foreign intelligence operatives (such as CIA officers), potential intelligence targets (such as businesspeople) and Chinese dissidents abroad.
  • Be scraped for information like email addresses that could be used to help hack targets’ other accounts.
  • Be mined to hone artificial intelligence systems or otherwise improve China’s big data capabilities. For instance, China could improve government facial recognition tech by training it on a wider range of ethnicities than is possible domestically, noted a former senior intelligence official.

The other side: TikTok says all of its data is stored outside of China and is therefore safe from potential prying by Beijing.

  • TikTok is not actually available for users in China; ByteDance instead operates a nearly identical app domestically.
  • Still, that’s done little to assuage China hawks, who note that recent Chinese laws assert the power to demand data from any company that so much as does business in the country.

Go deeper

Trump bans Americans from investing in 31 companies with links to Chinese military

Photo: Kevin Frayer via Getty

President Trump signed an executive order Thursday prohibiting American companies and individuals from owning shares in any of the 31 Chinese companies previously listed as enabling the People’s Liberation Army, effective Jan. 11.

Why it matters: Many of these companies trade on U.S. exchanges and are sometimes purchased by American investors as part of mutual funds. It’s unclear what effect Trump’s latest sanctions could have on the markets.

Updated 1 hour ago - World

Pentagon: 8,500 troops on high alert for possible deployment to eastern Europe

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has placed 8,500 U.S. troops on "heightened preparedness to deploy" to eastern Europe in case NATO activates its rapid-response force over tensions with Russia, the Pentagon announced Monday.

Why it matters: No decisions have been made to deploy U.S. forces, but the heightened alert level will allow the military to rapidly shore up NATO's eastern flank in the event that Russia invades Ukraine. The Pentagon warned that Russia has shown "no signs of de-escalating," and continues to amass troops on Ukraine's borders.

Alabama's new congressional map rejected by federal judges

The Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Federal judges on Monday night blocked Alabama's newly drawn congressional map and ordered the Republican-led State Legislature to create a new one that includes two districts, rather than the planned one.

Why it matters: "Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress," the panel of three judges wrote in their ruling.