Lawmakers say Chinese-owned app TikTok could pose 'national security risks'

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, called for an inquiry.

October 25, 2019, 10:41 AM

Two lawmakers representing both sides of the aisle called on the Director of National Intelligence to conduct an assessment of the "national security risks" posed by the wildly-popular, Chinese-owned app TikTok.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, sent a joint letter to acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire requesting the Intelligence Community conduct a security assessment of TikTok and other Chinese-owned content platforms in the U.S. and then present their findings to Congress.

TikTok, which is especially in vogue among young people, has over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone. The video-sharing platform is a beloved tool for sharing viral short clips, music videos and more.

TikTok is owned by Beijing-based tech company ByteDance, and the lawmakers expressed concern in a joint statement Thursday that China's internet laws force companies in the country to cooperate with its Chinese Communist Party.

"ByteDance regards its platforms as part of an artificial intelligence company powered by algorithms that 'learn' each user's interests and preferences through repeat interaction," the lawmakers said in the letter to Maguire.

The lawmakers also expressed concern over TikTok's data collection policy, saying its "terms of service and privacy policies describe how it collects data from its users and their devices, including user content and communications, IP address, location-related data, device identifiers, cookies, metadata, and other sensitive personal information."

"Security experts have voiced concerns that China's vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party," lawmakers added.

The letter added that TikTok reportedly censors politically sensitive content for China, including content related to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Taiwanese independence, references to Tiananmen Square and more.

Searches on Friday of "Free Hong Kong" and "Tiananmen Square" yielded a plethora of video clips on the platform, including users voicing their support for demonstrators in Hong Kong and footage of the famous scene in which an unidentified man stood in front of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square in 1989.

"The platform is also a potential target of foreign influence campaigns like those carried out during the 2016 election on U.S.-based social media platforms," the letter said.

PHOTO: In this photo illustration, the social media application logo, Tik Tok is displayed on the screen of an iPhone on March 05, 2019 in Paris, France.
In this photo illustration, the social media application logo, Tik Tok is displayed on the screen of an iPhone on March 05, 2019 in Paris, France.
Chesnot/Getty Images

TikTok dismissed the concerns in a statement but said it "recognizes the importance of these issues and appreciates that Members of Congress – and the public – are focused on them."

"At TikTok, we take these issues incredibly seriously as well," the statement read. "We are committed to transparency and accountability in how we support our TikTok users in the US and around the world."

The company said that all the data from American TikTok users is stored in the U.S., with a backup server in Singapore.

"Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law," the statement added. "Further, we have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices."

It also denied the allegations that it censors or removes content that may be sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party, or that it had any influence from any foreign government.

"We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period. Our US moderation team, which is led out of California, reviews content for adherence to our US policies – just like other US companies in our space," TikTok said.

"We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future," the statement added.

Earlier this month, TikTok announced it was banning all political ads on its platform ahead of the U.S. 2020 elections.

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