In the summer of 2020, in the midst of an election campaign and looking for new ways to punish China, President Donald Trump threatened to cut off TikTok’s access to the phones of millions of Americans unless his parent company stopped them. agrees to sell all of its US operations to US owners. The attempt failed.
Now, more than two years later, after lengthy studies into how Chinese officials could use the app for a variety of purposes, from surveillance to information operations, the Biden administration is trying a startlingly similar move. . It’s better organized, vetted by lawyers, and coordinated with new bills in Congress that appear to have considerable bipartisan support.
Yet shielding TikTok from Chinese exploitation — as a tool for Chinese authorities to monitor Americans’ tastes and whereabouts, as an entry point into the phones that hold their entire lives, and as a as a means of disseminating disinformation – proves more difficult than it seems.
Tensions around the app will come to a head this Thursday, when Singapore-based TikTok chief executive Shou Chew testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a hearing that will give Democrats like Republicans a rare opportunity to report their suspicions directly to the company.
But after two years of negotiations with TikTok over putting in place new protections, it’s unclear if the company can do anything short of handing over all of its operations to Americans, to respond. to the concerns of US intelligence agencies. Justice Department No. 2 and others have effectively rejected proposals from ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, to address these concerns.
Any move to remove the app, either banning it from 150 million users in the United States or blocking further downloads, would be politically sensitive for Joe Biden. No one has summed up the policy dilemma better than Gina Raimondo, the Secretary of Commerce, who is at the heart of new measures to control exports of high-tech products to China.
“The politician in me thinks you’re literally going to lose every voter under 35, forever,” she recently told Bloomberg News.
Ms. Raimondo and other officials are quick to add that bad policy is no reason to waive a total ban if the threat to national security warrants it. The issue is further complicated by the fact that some of the world’s biggest news outlets, including the New York Times, now have TikTok accounts, which means closing the app could feel like stopping streaming. information based on facts to counter Chinese disinformation.
“A lot of it is a game of chicken,” said James A. Lewis, who directs the cyber threats program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He believes, however, that Mr. Biden has a much better chance of succeeding than his predecessor.
“Different from the Trump administration, I think this administration has a chance to win – attitudes have changed towards China,” he said. Several new bills that would in different ways give the president explicit new authority to shut down TikTok have received bipartisan support. They are motivated by the intelligence community’s conclusion, contained in the Global Threat Assessment submitted to Congress, that China remains the “largest, most active, and most persistent” cyber threat to the country.
There have been a handful of abuse cases, including efforts to geotag journalists who have published leaked information about the company. But the administration has not presented full, declassified evidence of a systemic effort to use the app to advance Chinese government collection efforts.
That hasn’t stopped nearly 30 states from banning TikTok on official government or contractor phones, and federal employees are required to remove it as well, but not on their personal devices.
There are three problem areas. The first is where TikTok stores data for its US users. Until recently, much of this data was on ByteDance-run servers in Singapore and Virginia, which many feared would have allowed China to demand TikTok hand over the data. of its users under Beijing’s national security laws. This year, TikTok tried to preempt that argument by saying it would delete its US users’ data from ByteDance’s servers and move it to servers run by Oracle, a US cloud computing company.
Then comes the more difficult question: who writes the algorithm, the code that is the secret sauce of TikTok? This code evaluates the user’s choices and uses them to select other items to provide – a favorite dance number, or perhaps an interesting news article. The algorithms were written in China, by Chinese engineers who have honed the art of giving users what they want to see. Matt Perault and Samm Sacks recently wrote on the Lawfare blog that “TikTok may decide unilaterally to prioritize content that threatens or destabilizes the United States.” That too hasn’t happened yet, at least not through TikTok.
Finally, the question arises whether an app whose algorithm few people understand could allow outsiders, including China’s Ministry of National Security, to break into Americans’ phones — not to find out their preferences. in dance, but the vast data set they carry in their pockets.
Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, echoed those concerns this month, saying “it’s not just the fact that you can influence something, but that you can also turn off the message when you have such a large population of listeners”.
TikTok has sought to address misinformation concerns by releasing a long list of updated policies for video moderation, including new restrictions and labeling rules for deepfakes, highly realistic fake videos made using of artificial intelligence. Thus, TikTok will not allow deepfakes of private figures and will ban deepfakes of public figures if the content is used for promotional purposes. TikTok also provided more details on how it will “protect civic and electoral integrity.”
A TikTok spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
According to its latest proposal, TikTok would not just store US user data on Oracle’s servers in the US; the cloud computing company would also control its content recommendation algorithm, which TikTok says would prevent the app from being used to spread propaganda. Finally, the entity governing the application in the United States would be overseen by a board of directors composed of three people approved by the government.
But this proposal did not satisfy Washington. Some members of the administration, including Lisa Monaco, assistant attorney general, worried that these conditions were not strict enough. The administration also faced mounting pressure from lawmakers, who felt the app should be banned altogether.
Today, the Biden administration is pursuing a new strategy.
Publicly, she backed a bill earlier this month from a bipartisan group of senators that would give the Commerce Department clearer powers to ban the app, which could restore the influence of the government on ByteDance. Privately, administration officials told TikTok they wanted its Chinese owner to sell the app or face a ban. If the bill passes, it will significantly strengthen the administration’s position to force the sale of the app.
Peter Harrell, a lawyer and former senior director of international economics and competitiveness at the National Security Council, said the bill was “important because the United States, when dealing with TikTok and d ‘other Chinese apps, need clear legal authorities to regulate and compel actions’, which does not exist in current legislation.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment, saying only that he already supports the bill.