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The dark side of TikTok

TikTok calls itself “The Last Sunny Corner on the Internet.” But in reality, the app, which claims 150 million Americans among its 1 billion global users, is more than a harmless diversion for jokes and dance videos. It’s a powerful weapon of the Chinese Communist Party.

When TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies on Capitol Hill this week, expect him to deny that, but the truth is undeniable.

Both Democrats and Republicans view the Chinese Communist Party as America’s foremost national security threat. They recognize the CCP is playing the long haul and its endgame is global domination. To achieve its mission, Beijing is using a four-dimensional strategy of military, economic, diplomatic and cultural aggression with technology as its core. That includes TikTok.

No matter how strenuously Chew pleads independence from the Chinese government, he and his company are bound by China’s National Intelligence Law, which compels every Chinese citizen and company to surrender all data to the Chinese Communist Party upon request and perform surveillance activities on behalf of the CCP. Chew has no choice in the matter. Neither do TikTok’s Chinese employees. 

This is not a hypothetical matter. A recent BuzzFeed report, citing leaked audio from 80 internal TikTok meetings, revealed that “Everything is seen in China.” TikTok tracks users’ keystrokes to capture their personal data, such as credit card information, passwords, and location. In fact, TikTok is being used by the Chinese government to track reporters’ and whistleblowers’ physical movements in an attempt to intimidate them.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the CCP controls TikTok’s recommendation algorithm, “allows them [Chinese Communist Party] to manipulate content, and if they want to, to use it for influence operations.” In fact, the Chinese version of TikTok is different from the American version. In China, it serves up educational content. Here, it serves up pro-Beijing propaganda and censors any criticism of the CCP. Just try and search for “Uyghur genocide” videos.

Anything short of a total ban won’t work. Proposals, such as storing Americans’ data collected by TikTok in the United States, are unrealistic. A determined adversary with no regard for the rule of law, like the CCP, will not be deterred by legalistic technicalities. 

Beijing will undoubtedly exert leverage over TikTok’s Chinese developers to place a backdoor in the millions of lines of code that Chinese hackers can exploit later to access U.S. data. Frequent software updates make it nearly impossible to track down these backdoors. They are much harder to find than a spy balloon. 

The bipartisan RESTRICT Act, introduced by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) would give the secretary of Commerce the power to take action against technology companies that are based in certain countries determined to be “foreign adversaries,” including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba. Warner, an honorary co-chair of the Global Tech Security Commission along with some of the most respected members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, understands that securing technology is the key to securing freedom.

The Global Tech Security Commission, an initiative of the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue and the Atlantic Council, was chartered to develop a global tech security strategy to address the national security threats posed by authoritarian abuses of technology. TikTok is symptomatic of this pressing challenge, but the stakes are even higher in critical high-tech sectors, such as semiconductors, 5G/6G, AI, quantum, biotech, hypersonics, and the like. 

During his congressional testimony, Shou Zi Chew will do his best to extol the sunny side of TikTok even while it spreads the dark shadow of authoritarianism. But it’s not just fun and games. TikTok is a weapon in the 21st-century contest between freedom and authoritarianism, and technology must advance freedom.

Michelle Giuda is the Director of the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue University. She previously served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Global Public Affairs.

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