The Greatest Trojan Horse in History

In the past year, public controversy over TikTok has died down somewhat. That doesn’t make it any less dangerous.

The end of 2022 saw a deluge of reporting that should lead state and federal officials to conclude that TikTok, the app owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is the greatest Trojan Horse in history and should be banned.  

In brief, under Chinese law, any Chinese-owned company is bound to do what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) commands in the name of national security. It doesn’t matter where a company’s data is stored—under Chinese law, the Party is entitled to it. That presents enormous potential for the CCP to weaponize TikTok—the most downloaded app in the world—against the U.S. and its citizens.

Here are just some of the headlines that reinforce why calls to ban TikTok are appropriate:

  • “Leaked Audio From 80 Internal TikTok Meetings Shows That U.S. User Data Has Been Repeatedly Accessed from China” (BuzzFeed News)
  • “LinkedIn Profiles Indicate 500 Current TikTok and ByteDance  Employees Used to Work for Chinese State Media—And Some Still Do” (Forbes)
  • “TikTok Parent ByteDance Planned to Use TikTok to Monitor the Physical Location of Specific American Citizens” (Forbes)

Read more about the background of TikTok interventions in CTT’s 2020 white paper.

As a result of these and other damning pieces of evidence indicating that TikTok is a useful tool for the Chinese Communist Party to surveil, propagandize, censor, and build data profiles on Americans, the at least 30 U.S. states have banned it from state government devices, with Montana attempting to implement a total ban. Bravo. As is the case with removing malicious Chinese technology from state government networks, it seems momentum to ban TikTok is strongest at the state level.

At the  federal level, the Pentagon has rightly banned the app from government-issued phones. But there’s still much more work to do. President Trump came close to forcing a sale of TikTok, and the Biden Administration continues to examine the proposition. Presently TikTok remains in negotiations to continue their U.S. operations, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen admitting in November, “We do have concerns around the potential issues with privacy and social media.”

Why is everyone so concerned about the app? Besides the  massive concerns related to data privacy, surveillance, and propaganda identified above, American parents and child psychologists are noticing the mental health effects of the app on kids. 60 Minutes recently exposed how the American version of TikTok is in the words of former FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, “digital fentanyl” for children. Says Tristan Harris, Co-Founder of the Center for Human Technology:

“[In the Chinese] version of TikTok, if you’re under 14 years old, they show you science experiments you can do at home, museum exhibits, patriotism videos, and educational videos, and they only limit it to 40 minutes per day. Now they don’t ship that version of TikTok to the rest of the world, so it’s almost like they recognize that technology is influencing kids development, and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world.”

So, in light of the growing evident dangers of TikTok, the House Energy and Committee hauled CEO Shou Zi Chew up to the Hill in March of 2023 to explain the company’s actions. The internet exploded with videos of Chew’s less-than-truthful performance. Based on the intense level of questioning and media attention, one would think that Congress was preparing to take action against the company.

Sadly, it’s been crickets since then. Although two congressional leaders recently sent letters to TikTok asking for info on efforts to protect data and secure privacy, Congress has passed no meaningful legislation to mitigate the national security risks from TikTok, despite the bipartisan House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party calling for Congress to “enact legislation that would force divestment of or, if necessary, ban foreign adversary-controlled social media platforms such as TikTok, from the United States.” Maybe the inaction is in part because numerous former U.S. officials, from Senator Trent Lott to Representative Joe Crowley, are grotesquely lobbying for the company, and one of the Republican Party’s biggest donors is also a billionaire investor who has profited handsomely from an early bet on the company.

In the coming weeks and months, China Tech Threat will have much more to say about TikTok, its enablers, and the ways the Chinese Communist Party is already wielding this powerful new weapon against Americans.  

But first: On Monday we will take a look at Tencent, the Chinese digital media and entertainment behemoth that presents similar security risks as TikTok, but has mostly flown under the radar as a threat to the United States.

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