National Security

‘TikTok Concerns Me’: US Cyber Chief Warns Congress About Chinese Spy App

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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America’s top cyber chief dug his heels in on opposition to TikTok during a congressional hearing Tuesday over the app’s data collection features and potential for use in Chinese influence operations.

The White House and Congress have coalesced around efforts to restrict the popular Chinese-owned social media app in the U.S. despite assurances from the company it does not funnel user data to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Gen. Paul Nakasone, who heads both U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency (NSA), underscored those concerns in response to questions from Republican lawmakers in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

‘TikTok concerns me for a number of different reasons,” Nakasone said when asked by GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama to describe threats the app could pose America’s children. (RELATED: Top US Cyber Official Warns Beijing ‘Has The Corner,’ Says US Should Be Wary Of Using Chinese Products)

Nakasone’s apprehensions about the app include the “algorithm and control of who has the algorithm,” he said, hinting at the Chinese firm ByteDance, which reportedly involved CCP officials in negotiations with Washington on curbing the platform’s U.S. presence.

ByteDance executives also reportedly considered how the Chinese government would react to the possible terms of a security agreement, The Wall Street Journal reported. Many ByteDance employees have a history of working for Chinese propaganda outlets, including one who served as a “content strategy manager” as of August, according to Forbes.

TikTok administrators can influence users or “turn off the message,” Nakasone said. Lawmakers and experts have expressed concerns that TikTok can manipulate the content streams visible to U.S. users to influence the opinions and attention of consumers to support CCP agenda and harm children.

More than 100 million Americans use the platform, according to Reuters.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a national security body in which NSA and Cyber Command have a voice, opened an investigation into TikTok in 2020 and ordered ByteDance to divest from its product over concerns China could get access to user data, Reuters reported.

“The swiftest and most thorough way to address any national security concerns about TikTok is for CFIUS – of which the Department of Defense and the NSA are a part – to adopt the proposed agreement that we worked with them on for nearly two years,” TikTok representative Brooke Oberwetter said, according to Reuters.

Later in Tuesday’s hearing, Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida asked whether Americans should have the app on their phones at all.

For one thing, a “tremendous amount of data” circulates on the app, Nakasone explained. “Understanding where your data is, is critical.”

The second branch of concern is “the opportunity for influence. This is a means upon which you receive information or you don’t receive information, and that’s where I always look at that in terms of being able to measure that risk,” he said.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Tuesday that would give the Biden administration power to completely cut off TikTok’s access to the U.S. market as well as restrict other foreign technologies considered national security threats, Reuters reported.

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