By Nike Ching
U.S. officials and lawmakers are warning Americans against using Tiktok, a popular video-sharing application owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance, citing privacy and security concerns.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that Washington has been “engaged in a constant evaluation” to protect the privacy of American citizens and U.S. national security, when asked whether the U.S. is considering banning TikTok.
“We want to make sure that the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t have a way to easily access” U.S. citizens’ data, Pompeo told reporters during a news briefing at the State Department. “So what you’ll see the administration do is take actions that preserve and protect that information and deny the Chinese Communist Party access to the private information that belongs to Americans.”
Pompeo’s comments came the same week FBI Director Christopher Wray called China’s acts of espionage and theft the “greatest threat” to the future of the United States. He said the bureau opens a China-related counterintelligence case every 10 hours and has more than 2,000 active cases under way.
Some U.S. lawmakers are calling for a more limited ban on TikTok now that would affect members of the military.
“I urged the Department of Defense to prevent the use of TikTok on young soldiers and sailors, but that threat is not limited to our service members,” said Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who is a member of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“I would encourage every parent to consider whether or not they should let their kids put TikTok on their devices, and think about whether we want to allow it.”
Pompeo on Wednesday also praised American social media companies that recently stopped responding to user data requests from Hong Kong authorities after China’s new controversial national security law.
“I want to give kudos to Google, Facebook and Twitter for refusing to surrender user data to the Hong Kong government – other companies should follow them and do the same,” Pompeo said.
On Tuesday, TikTok said it had decided to stop operations of the app in Hong Kong “in light of recent events.”
But it remains unclear when TikTok — which is owned by Beijing-based startup ByteDance — will exit Hong Kong, and whether its parent company ByteDance plans to make its Chinese version of the app — Douyin — available to Hong Kong users.
TikTok’s decision to leave Hong Kong comes as the app tries to distance itself from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). TikTok has said its data centers are located entirely outside of mainland China, and that none of that data is subject to Chinese law.
The company is currently undergoing a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which has the power to overturn TikTok’s 2017 purchase of Musical.ly, the Western version of the app. There is no public timetable for when the investigation will be completed.
China office in Hong Kong
Meanwhile, China opened its national security office in Hong Kong on Wednesday, a key part of Beijing’s tough new oversight of the semi-autonomous city.
Under the new national security law for Hong Kong, anyone believed to be carrying out terrorism, separatism, subversion of state power or collusion with foreign forces could face life in prison. Legal analysts say it effectively ends political freedoms that long allowed Hong Kong residents to publicly express their political views and helped transform the territory into an international financial hub.
“I think tech companies, as well as everyone else, are watching and seeing how this new law will impact them. And I think they’ll be assessing the pros and cons of staying in the Chinese market versus the ethical and security risks that they need to grapple with in light of this new law,” said U.S. Institute of Peace’s senior policy analyst Patricia Kim.
Kim said China is unlikely to reverse course despite condemnation from the West and punitive measures from the U.S., because Beijing sees the new national security law as essential for preserving control over Hong Kong, as well as countering any threats to CCP’s authority.
The U.S. consideration of prohibiting Chinese social media apps comes as India decided last week to ban TikTok and other Chinese apps, citing a “threat to sovereignty and integrity.”
The ban follows broader, escalating tensions between India and China after a border clash between the two countries last month that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead.