TikTok represents a strategic issue rather than an immediate tactical threat to the US, the head of the National Security Agency's cybersecurity directorate said. However, some experts question the evidence behind concerns over the China-owned app.
Speaking at a policy conference in Northern California, Rob Joyce, director of cybersecurity for the spy agency, reiterated on Monday the agency's earlier position that the Chinese-owned social networking app is akin to a "loaded gun" that the Chinese government could use to influence what information Americans see.
"Why would you bring the Trojan horse inside the fortress?" Joyce said at the conference, adding that China could use its influence on TikTok to suppress information that might make the nation look bad to Americans.
“People are always looking for the smoking gun in these technologies,” Joyce stressed. “I characterize it much more as a loaded gun.”
In the US, bipartisan concern over TikTok and the alleged risk to data of its 150 million American users is growing. Last week, members of the US House of Representatives grilled TikTok CEO Shou Chew about the app’s data-handling practices.
Chew repeatedly denies the app shares data or has connections with the Chinese Communist Party, but the effort to convince American lawmakers over TikTok’s innocence has so far seemed futile.
US President Joe Biden has signaled his support for legislation introduced by a dozen senators that would give him the power to ban TikTok and other foreign technologies if they pose a national security risk.
However, there is still no public evidence the Chinese government has actually spied on people through TikTok, and the app actually appears to operate very similarly to American social media platforms in the amount of user tracking and data collection it performs.
This is something the government of France probably took into account as it announced it would ban all recreational apps from work devices. Paris didn’t jump on the bandwagon that has been rolling through the West lately – TikTok has not been singled out, although it wasn’t exempted from the ban.
“I certainly don’t think TikTok is squeaky clean, but are they any worse than the other platforms? I doubt it, and to date we’ve yet to have seen evidence to suggest otherwise,” Sean Wright, a security researcher, recently tweeted.
It’s probable that lack of evidence of TikTok being a Chinese spying tool made Joyce offer a general warning rather than a specific allegation. Most senior US national security officials have also talked more about China’s leverage over businesses under its jurisdiction.
It’s a fact that companies registered in China are bound by law to hand over internal information to the Chinese government if required. ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is headquartered in Beijing.
China’s National Intelligence Law, enacted in 2017, is extraordinarily broad, legal experts have said. It requires any organization or citizen in China to cooperate with state intelligence work but it does not define what intelligence work means.
Such ambiguous language is one of the reasons there’s so much speculation about what kind of access to TikTok’s data the Chinese government has or might have. Others say it’s quite clear the West, primarily the US, is playing geopolitics and trying to fend off the rise of China’s tech industry.
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