FBI warns of China’s influence over TikTok

Beijing could use TikTok to control user data and their devices, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Director Christopher Wray told US lawmakers. He said China had already stolen more American data than every other nation combined.

“We do have national security concerns at least from the FBI’s end about TikTok,” Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee at the annual hearing on worldwide threats.

He warned China could use TikTok “to control data collection on millions of users” or software on millions of devices which would allow it “to potentially technically compromise” these devices.

Beijing could also use TikTok “to control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations if they so chose,” the FBI director said.

One in 10 Americans now regularly use TikTok as a source of news, according to a recent survey by Pew Research. The app is particularly popular among younger audiences and has been struggling to keep disinformation in check.

Wray testified in Congress along with National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who also shared his concerns about China.

"China is using its technology to tilt the global playing field to its benefit," Mayorkas said.

China "the greatest threat"

Director Wray reiterated that China is “the greatest long-term threat” to the US. He added that three weeks ago, the FBI unsealed charges against 13 individuals – 10 of them Chinese intelligence officers – who sought to exert influence in the US to benefit Beijing.

“The Chinese government aspires to equal or surpass the US as a global superpower and influence the world with a value system shaped by undemocratic authoritarian ideals,” Wray said.

The FBI director also said that China has stolen more American data “than every other nation combined” and that its “vast hacking program is the world’s largest.”

According to him, the mere fact TikTok’s parent company, a Beijing-headquartered ByteDance, was bound by law to hand over internal information to the Chinese government if required was “plenty of reason by itself to be extremely concerned.”

Director Wray said the FBI was "extremely concerned" about TikTok

TikTok in talks with US government

The warning comes as the Biden administration is deliberating an arrangement with TikTok that would allow the app to continue US operations under the ownership of ByteDance and address national security concerns.

Obstacles remain in the negotiations, the New York Times reported in September. The critics say the deal does not go far enough, and some lawmakers demand to outright ban TikTok in the US or only allow its operations under the ownership of an American company.

“The FBI’s input is being considered as part of our ongoing negotiations with the US government” and that it was confident “we are on a path to fully satisfy all reasonable US national security concerns,” TikTok said.

The company also said in the past that it was not removing TikTok posts in the US at the request of the Chinese government and insisted that US user data was stored outside China.

Some recent reports suggested, however, that these statements were misleading and some US user data might have been transferred to China.

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