Unplugging on TikTok is harder than it looks
In the summer of 2020, in full-blown re-election mode and looking for new ways to punish China, President Donald J. Trump threatened to cut TikTok off the phones of millions of Americans unless the parent company did agreed to sell all of its American operations to American owners. Attempts collapsed.
Now, more than two years later, after much lengthy research into how the Chinese authorities can use the app for everything from surveillance to information operations, the Biden administration is trying. amazingly similar moves. It is better organized, reviewed by attorneys, and coordinated with new bills in Congress that appear to have substantial bipartisan support.
However, make TikTok safe from Chinese exploitation — as a tool for Chinese officials to track Americans’ tastes and whereabouts, as an access point to a phone containing an entire life their own and as a way to spread misinformation — it turns out to be harder than it looks.
Tensions over the app will peak on Thursday, when TikTok’s chief executive in Singapore, Shou Chew, testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a hearing that will bring parties Democrats and Republicans have a rare opportunity to directly voice their doubts. for company. On Tuesday, Mr. Chew posted a TikTok from the company’s main account, claiming that “some politicians” are trying to take the app away from its 150 million US users, including small businesses.
But after two years of negotiations with TikTok about building new safeguards, it’s not clear what the company can do, other than handing over the entire operation to the Americans, that would meet its concerns. US intelligence agencies. The Justice Department’s No. 2 official and others effectively rejected suggestions by TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, to address the concerns.
Any decision to remove the app, or ban it 150 million US users, or blocking further downloads, would make it politically difficult for Mr. Biden. No one encapsulates the political dilemma more deeply Gina Raimondo, commercial secretaryis at the center of new export controls imposed on high-tech goods to China.
“The politician in me thinks you literally lose every voter under the age of 35,” she told Bloomberg News recently.
Raimondo and other officials are quick to add that bad politics are not a reason to withdraw the ban outright if the national security threat warrants it. The matter is further complicated by the fact that some of the world’s biggest news organizations, including The New York Times, now have TikTok accounts, which means shutting down the app could mean losing money. Stop spreading truth-based news to fight China’s Misinformation
“For the most part this is a game of chicken,” said James A. Lewis, who runs the cyber threats program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But he believes Mr Biden has a much greater chance of success than his predecessor.
“Unlike the Trump administration, I think this administration has a chance to win – attitudes towards China have changed,” he said. Several new bills that, in different ways, give the president clear new powers to shut down TikTok have received bipartisan support. They are driven by the intelligence community’s conclusion, contained in the Global Threat Assessment sent to Congress, that China remains the “widest, most active, and most persistent” cyber threat. for this country.
So far, however, the threat from TikTok has been mostly theoretical.
There have been several instances of abuse, including attempts to geo-locate reporters who published leaked information about the company. But the authorities have not produced comprehensive, declassified evidence of a systematic attempt to use the app to advance the Chinese government’s collection efforts.
That hasn’t stopped nearly 30 states from banning TikTok from official government or contractor phones, and federal employees are also being asked to remove it—though not from their personal devices.
There are three obvious areas of interest. The first is where TikTok stores US users’ data. Until recently, most of that was on servers operated by ByteDance in Singapore and Virginia, which many fear would allow China to require TikTok to hand over user data under national security laws. of Beijing. This year, TikTok tried to refute this argument, saying it would delete US users’ data from ByteDance servers and move them to a server run by Oracle, an American cloud computing company.
Then comes the harder question – who writes the algorithm, the code is TikTok’s secret sauce. That code evaluates the user’s choices and uses them to select more material to offer the user — a favorite dance routine or maybe an interesting news story. The algorithms have been written in China, by Chinese engineers who have refined the art of giving users what they want to see. As Matt Perault and Samm Sacks wrote recently on the Lawfare blog, it is worrisome that “TikTok may unilaterally decide to prioritize content that could threaten or destabilize the United States.” Again, that hasn’t happened yet, at least not through TikTok.
And finally, there’s the issue of whether an app with an algorithm that few people understand could be a gateway for outsiders, including China’s state security ministry, to break into people’s phones. America – to find out not their dance preferences but huge data warehouses or not. data they carry in their hip pocket.
In November, Christopher A. Wray, director of the FBI, warn that The Chinese government may use TikTok’s algorithm for “influence activities”. General Paul M. Nakasone, head of US Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, repeat those concerns this month, saying that “it’s not just the fact that you can influence something, but you can turn off the message when you have such a large audience.”
TikTok has sought to address misinformation concerns with a long list of updated policies for video moderation, including new restrictions and labeling rules for deepfakes. high reality created by artificial intelligence. For example, TikTok will not allow deepfakes of private characters and will ban public figures if the content is used for endorsement. It also provided more details on how it would “protect the integrity of citizens and elections”.
A spokesperson for TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.
The battle over the app had become a complicated legal issue by the time Mr. Biden inherited it from Mr. Trump in 2021.
Federal courts have ruled that Mr. Trump does not have the authority to enforce his proposed ban of apps from the Apple and Google app stores, taking away crucial leverage the White House used to make ByteDance considers selling TikTok.
Mr. Biden issued an executive order in June 2021 repelling Trump’s threat of sanctions. He ordered ByteDance to divest from the app. But employees of a group of federal agencies that examine foreign companies in the US, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, are considering a third option: negotiating a deal with TikTok to settle national security concerns but did not force ByteDance to sell the app.
Under its latest proposal, TikTok will not only store US user data on Oracle servers in the US; The cloud computing company will also monitor its content recommendation algorithm – which TikTok says is a hedge against the app being used to spread propaganda. And the entity that manages the application in the United States will be overseen by a government-approved three-person board.
But that proposal did not please Washington hawks. Some in the administration – including Lisa O. Monaco, deputy attorney general – worry its terms aren’t strict enough. The administration is also facing growing pressure from lawmakers, who say the app should be banned altogether.
Now, the Biden administration is pursuing a new strategy.
Publicly, it backed legislation earlier this month from a bipartisan group of senators that would give the Commerce Department clearer power to ban the app, potentially restoring government leverage over ByteDance. Privately, administration officials told TikTok they want its Chinese ownership to sell apps or possibly get banned. If the law is passed, it will significantly strengthen the authority of the authorities to force the sale.
Peter Harrell, an attorney and former senior director for international economics and competitiveness on the National Security Council, said the proposed legislation is “important because as the US handles TikTok and other apps other Chinese, they need some clear legal authority to regulate and force action” which does not exist in the current law.
A White House spokesman declined to comment beyond pointing out its existing support for the legislation.
For now, TikTok has undercut its own arguments. It has said it will not pass information on its users to the Chinese government – although China’s national security law would clearly require it to do so if the country’s intelligence agencies were to come out. ordered its Chinese staff to do so.
When Forbes report In October, when the China-based ByteDance team planned to use TikTok to track the location of some Americans, TikTok’s communications team responded on Twitter that the publication’s work lacked “both character and integrity.” rigor and integrity of the press”. It also said TikTok “has never been used to ‘target'” US politicians or journalists.
Two months later, ByteDance admits that four of its employees, including two based in China, had access to the IP addresses and other data of the two reporters, as well as some who were connected to the reporters through their TikTok accounts. . Officers are trying to determine if these individuals met with ByteDance employees, so they can try to find the source of the leak to journalists.
TikTok deemed the incident unusual and fired the employee. It said it had set up systems to prevent a recurrence. And there is no doubt that American companies have experienced similar incidents of internal privacy breaches.
But in the current atmosphere in Washington, especially after the downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon that passed over the United States in January, any evidence of Chinese surveillance nourishes deep bipartisan desire to crack down on Chinese entry points into American networks. And of those, no app is bigger — or more influential — than TikTok, which is why the path the administration takes over the next few months could set a precedent far beyond the fate of the past. TikTok’s eyes.
Julian Barnes Contribution report from Washington.