Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, testified before Congress on March 23 that he has seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access to the popular, Chinese-owned social-media platform’s data. “The bottom line is this: American data stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel,” he testified.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle do not believe Chew, voicing concerns that Beijing is involved in the network and could use it to steal data and spread lies. Critics, some of whom call for a U.S. ban on TikTok, cite growing evidence of spying from other Chinese-owned entities, such as the technology company Huawei.
Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at RAND Corporation, told JNS that there are two major security issues with TikTok.
“The first is that it is being used as a platform to promote Chinese propaganda, and the second is that it is being used to harvest the data of its users,” he said.
There is no evidence currently that China is using TikTok for either purpose, but it has the ability to do so. “As long as it is owned by a Chinese company, TikTok remains a national security risk,” said Heath. “TikTok is a risk as long as it is obliged to comply with Chinese intelligence agencies.”
Proponents of a national ban on TikTok have proposed various pieces of legislation, including the Anti-Social CCP Act (S.5245) introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). The bill aims to block and prohibit all transactions from any social-media company under the influence of China, Russia and several other countries, unless the country fully divests ownership.
The Restrict Act (S. 686), sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), would give the executive branch broader authority to identify and restrict social media that constitutes a threat to national security.
‘Means, motivation and history of stealing user data’
Mark Montgomery, senior fellow and senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS that he supports the Restrict Act “because we need something for the day after TikTok.”
TikTok has the means to collect user data and the motivation to do so, given China’s history of stealing intellectual property, according to Montgomery, who is also a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. ByteDance, which owns TikTok, fired four employees after an outside law firm’s investigation revealed that they accessed data on two journalists and other U.S. users, Montgomery noted.
“TikTok clearly has a means, a motivation and a history of stealing user data,” he said. This alone is sufficient to justify a national ban on the app, he said.
Israel has welcomed TikTok, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened a TikTok account in December 2020 to promote the COVID-19 vaccine. The handle remains active, with more than 500,000 followers and 4.2 million likes. The most recent post was on March 29.
TikTok poses a risk to both Israeli and U.S. national security since both countries are vulnerable to online disinformation, according to Montgomery. In an analysis he published in February 2022, Montgomery compared Chinese misinformation blaming the United States for the pandemic’s origins with a conspiracy that the KGB promoted that HIV and AIDS were U.S. bioweapons.
“Both Israel and the U.S. are open democracies, and have similar vulnerabilities,” said Montgomery. “But there is one important difference. Israel thus far has been more reserved in its dealings with China.”
Montgomery added that China does not view Jerusalem as a competitor, as it does Washington. However, this would not prevent the Chinese government from spying on Israel in an effort to steal Israeli technology and advance its own interests, he said.
Zineb Riboua, research associate and program manager of Hudson Institute’s Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East, agreed.
“Given Israel’s leading position in innovation, technological development and artificial intelligence, China considers Israel an important partner,” Riboua told JNS. “It is a startup nation of the Middle East and a key U.S. ally.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping is eager to have Israel as a strategic partner, she added.
“TikTok comes as a very handy tool and weapon to gather information and understand Israeli public opinion. It can be very useful to spy on Israeli entrepreneurs, tech experts and investors to sway public opinion in China’s favor,” stated Riboua.
It’s not proven, but China may well be using TikTok to spy on Israelis, according to Riboua.
“China reportedly created dossiers on prominent Americans and those hailing from allied countries like Australia, Canada and Great Britain as recently as 2020 with both stolen and publicly available datasets,” she said. “One can suspect that China is trying to achieve similar goals in Israel.”