TikTok national security problem: Don’t ignore the lessons of 2016
Legitimate concerns about TikTok have been raised, including by high-profile senators, centering on censorship and sensitive data. As of Jan. 3, each of the U.S. military services has banned TikTok from government-issued mobile devices.
But not enough attention has been given to a more serious threat — the long-term potential for TikTok to be used as a platform for election-meddling and other influence operations.
Some people scoffed when Vice President Mike Pence, in a landmark address on China, accused Beijing of meddling in U.S. elections. But the lessons of our 2016 election reveal that foreign powers can interfere with relative ease, and Russia is not the only culprit. We will soon find out how well the U.S. government learned that lesson.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a federal body that screens incoming foreign investments for national security risks, is scrutinizing a transaction involving the popular mobile app TikTok, according to news reports.
TikTok is one of the most popular mobile apps in the world. It is also controlled by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, and therein lies the rub. Two years ago, ByteDance acquired a U.S.-based competitor called Musical.ly, securing a strong foothold in the U.S. market, and then it folded Musical.ly into TikTok.
The TikTok app probably seems innocuous, since it is used mostly by teens to share how-to videos and musical renditions. But, it could present a real counterintelligence threat due to ByteDance’s ties to the Chinese government, which include a joint venture with a Chinese state-owned media group. In the interests of national security, CFIUS should consider forcing ByteDance to divest Musical.ly.
We know that during our 2016 election Russia carried out a significant campaign to affect the outcome and undermine public confidence in our democratic process, blending covert intelligence operations with more overt efforts, including armies of social media “trolls.”
While Russia did not own or control the U.S. platforms it exploited, its trolls were still able to create and leverage fake accounts to spread disinformation and sow chaos. It’s not difficult to imagine what another foreign adversary, China, could do with a massive social media platform under its thumb. With TikTok, that is the situation the U.S. now faces.
TikTok has 26.5 million monthly active U.S. users, with 60 percent of them between the ages of 16 and 24, according to ByteDance. Many are just teenagers now but will be voting soon, and younger generations rely increasingly on social media for information. The U.S. Government should not wait until the 2024 or 2028 elections to address the mounting risks.
Congress has already weighed in on this exact scenario. In 2018, it enacted the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act, specifically prodding CFIUS to consider whether transactions could give a foreign government new cyber capabilities to affect the outcome of US elections. That is both clear congressional intent and also sound policy.
Last January, then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats suggested in public testimony that adversaries and strategic competitors — including China — learned from Russia’s 2016 effort and are now refining their capabilities. He assessed that these nations are likely “looking to the 2020 U.S. elections as an opportunity to advance their interests” and “almost certainly will use online influence operations to try to weaken democratic institutions, undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships, and shape policy outcomes in the United States and elsewhere.”
China has an extensive track record of influence operations and election meddling in other countries and has used social media trolls to target political protests in Hong Kong. Last August, Twitter disclosed a significant Chinese “state-backed information operation” aimed at the protests, dismantling a network of 200,000 accounts that aimed to sow political discord. Facebook also detected similar activity and took action.
China also showed its hand during Taiwan’s 2018 election, employing its “50-cent army” of online trolls to sow propaganda and weaken the ruling party. Having tasted success in Taiwan, China conducted another disinformation campaign in the run-up to this month’s presidential election, trying unsuccessfully to undermine Taiwan’s incumbent president, Tsai Ing-wen, who China abhors. China also reportedly hacked into Australia’s parliament and political parties just three months before elections there last year.
While there are no known cases yet of TikTok spreading propaganda to meddle in foreign elections, the national security risks are inherent. As long as the app is controlled by a Chinese company, its data and capabilities will always be within reach of China’s government.
After all, TikTok and ByteDance would only be complying with Chinese law. China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law requires that “Any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law.” Unlike American companies who receive requests from the U.S. government, ByteDance simply has no recourse when faced with orders from China’s authoritarian government.
David R. Hanke is a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. He was formerly a professional staff member on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and was the primary staff architect of the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act. The views expressed in this column are his alone.
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