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TikTok “a loaded gun” says NSA

America’s TikTok-addicted youth is playing with a “loaded gun” according to General Paul Nakasone, Director of the National Security Agency (NSA). Speaking at a US Senate hearing on Wednesday, the general said “one third of Americans get their news from TikTok”, adding “one sixth of American youth say they’re constantly on TikTok. That’s a loaded gun.”

TikTok is an immensely popular social media platform that allows users to create, share, and discover, short video clips. It’s enjoyed explosive growth since it first appeared in 2017, and now it claims to have 1 billion users, an estimated 100 million of them in the US.

Unique among major social media apps, TikTok is owned by a Chinese company Bytedance. Due to its ties with China and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the platform has been under a national security review by the government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, or CFIUS, and will soon be banned on federal devices.

A loud chorus of concern has surrounded the app for some time now. 

One of the earliest signs of trouble occurred in 2020 when retail giant Amazon sent a memo to employees telling them to delete TikTok from their phones. In the same year, the app escaped a total ban in the US after rumors that it was sharing the data of US citizens with the Chinese government.

Things picked up again in 2022, when Federal Communications Commissioner (FCC) Brendan Carr called for TikTok to be banned in America, months after deeming it an “unacceptable security risk“, and called for Apple and Google to remove the app from their respective stores.

TikTok has also been scrutinized by the European Union (EU), Canadian privacy protection authorities, and on Wednesday the White House backed legislation introduced by a dozen senators that gives President Biden’s administration new powers to identify and stop any technology from China or other adversaries from entering the US if it is deemed a national security risk. The bill would give the Commerce Department the ability to ban TikTok and other foreign-based technologies.

At the same hearing attended by General Nakasone, FBI Director Christopher Wray spelled out the agency’s three concerns:

  • The algorithm. The FBI is concerned that the CCP’s control of the TikTok algorithm, which decides which posts are shown to which users, could be used to conduct hard-to-detect influence operations against Americans.
  • Access to data. The Director explained that TikTok’s vast database of information about individuals in the US could be used to conduct traditional espionage operations.
  • Control of the software. TikTok is installed on millions on devices, where it has access to location data, cameras, microphones and other sensors.

Fundamentally though, his concern with TikTok is a concern about who controls those three things: “it’s the ownership of the CCP that fundamentally cuts across all those concerns,” he told the hearing.

Wray used dividing Americans on the subject of Taiwan’s independence as an example of how TikTok’s reach could be used.

When asked about a situation in which China wanted to invade Taiwan, Wray agreed that the platform could be used to show Americans videos arguing why Taiwan belongs to China and why the US. should not intervene. He added that it could be difficult to see “the outward signs of it happening, if it was happening.”

Just last week, the White House issued an order requiring all federal agencies to remove TikTok from government devices within 30 days, citing security risks the app poses to sensitive government data. Now, another step has been taken towards a complete ban. If it weren’t for the popularity of the app, it is questionable whether these decisions would take so long. Even though the app is more popular among younger people (under 35 years old), a majority of its users are old enough to vote.

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Pieter Arntz

Malware Intelligence Researcher

Was a Microsoft MVP in consumer security for 12 years running. Can speak four languages. Smells of rich mahogany and leather-bound books.