Trump’s Fulfills Threats with TikTok and WeChat Executive Orders

Yesterday President Trump issued Executive Orders on TikTok and WeChat. Noting a state of national emergency for the security of information technology, beginning in 45 days (September 20) the President prohibits any person subject to the “jurisdiction of the United States” to transact with TikTok or WeChat. This means that these apps must either divest their Chinese ownership or be blocked. Importantly, the orders are directed against the mobile apps operating in the US and not their parent companies in China, ByteDance and Tencent Holdings Ltd. respectively.

How did we get here? ChinaTechTheat, in a report that I co-authored with former Congressman Robert Pittenger, predicted such an outcome in “CFIUS’ Growing Power to Protect American Security from China Tech Threats: Examining TikTok and Lenovo.” In fact, bipartisan national security reform led by Mr. Pittenger increased the President’s power to take such an action in 2018.

TikTok, the popular music video sharing app, has been in legal crosshairs for months, if not years. The President previously hinted that TikTok would need to divest its Chinese ownership. The Administration made similar moves to block or unwind transactions which put Americans’ data and privacy at risk from the Chinese government, as with PatientsLikeMe, Grindr and StayNTouch. It was fined for the Federal Trade Commission for violating children’s privacy and it purposely avoided informing authorities when the Chinese Byte acquired it in 2017. The Order follows months of bipartisan investigation on TikTok and repeated situations in which TikTok failed to appear. Its 200 million users are roughly split between the US and the rest of the world.

WeChat, a Chinese mobile platform for social networking and payments, has 1.5 million users in the US and 1 billion in China. Its American operations primarily facilitates communications between Chinese in the US and mainland China. Unlike popular American messaging apps, WeChat is not encrypted, enabling easy reading for the Chinese government.

The Executive Orders note that these mobile applications owned and operated in China threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States. TikTok captures the user’s location, browsing, search history, and detailed personal information. It can track location of federal employees and contractors. This information can be used to build dossiers on individuals for blackmail and espionage. As a rule, Chinese companies feed their user database in China’s Social Credits System. The Chinese Communist Party censors politically sensitive content such as the Hong Kong protests and the treatment of Uyghur Muslims and religious minorities, and it spreads disinformation about COVID. Many US federal agencies have already banned TikTok, including the military. The nation of India has banned the app entirely for stealing and unlawfully transferring data.

American law requires that the President to protect the people of the United States from foreign threats and aggression. Building on bipartisan outrage in which the Executive Branch allowed the Chinese government owned-Lenovo to acquire strategic information technology from the US, Congress adopted the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018 (FIRRMA). This Act requires the Executive Brand to screen foreign direct investment for its impacts to privacy and cybersecurity. The Executive Orders on TikTok and WeChat are the correct response to a situation that was long recognized as putting Americans’ safety, security, and privacy at risk.