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Senators call for federal investigation into TikTok for potential national security risks

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Image: TikTok

Two senators have called for United States intelligence officials to undertake an investigation into TikTok to determine whether the Chinese-owned social media app poses a risk to national security. 

First reported by The Washington Post, Democrat Senator Charles Schumer and Republican Senator Tom Cotton wrote in a letter on Wednesday to Joseph Maguire, US Director of National Intelligence, that “with over 110 million downloads in the US alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore”. 

“Given these concerns, we ask that the Intelligence Community conduct an assessment of the national security risks posed by TikTok and other China-based content platforms operating in the US and brief Congress on these findings,” the letter said.

In the letter, Schumer and Cotton said TikTok is still required to adhere to the laws of China as it is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based unicorn. 

The ByteDance-owned social media video app, known as Douyin in China and TikTok outside its home market, has over 1 billion monthly active users across the world as of January this year, Douyin president Zhang Nan announced in June.

“Security experts have voiced concerns that China’s vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” they wrote.

Due to this alleged Chinese influence, Schumer and Cotton believe TikTok could be forced to follow China’s censorship regulations in blocking out politically sensitive material, including content related to the recent Hong Kong protests, as well as references to Tiananmen Square, Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, and the treatment of Uighurs. 

The senators also said the platform could be a potential target of foreign influence campaigns like those carried out during the 2016 US election, alleging that ByteDance uses its platforms, including TikTok, “as part of an artificial intelligence company powered by algorithms that ‘learn’ each user’s interests and preferences through repeat interaction”.

On the same day, TikTok wrote in a blog post that it is “committed to transparency and accountability” for its operations in the US and around the world.

According to TikTok, all of its US user data is stored in the US, with backup redundancies located in Singapore. It also added that its data centres are located outside of China and none of its data is subject to Chinese law. 

“TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China. We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked,” the company said.

“We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future.” 

Last week, TikTok announced it had hired global law firm K&L Gates LLP, including two former US congressmen Bart Gordon and Jeff Denham, to review its content moderation policies in a bid to further strengthen the platform’s moderation policies and overall transparency.

TikTok made the external hires to “further increase transparency around our content moderation policies and the practices we employ to protect our community,” Vanessa Pappas, TikTok’s US general manager, said at the time.

The call for an investigation on TikTok comes off the back of Senator Marco Rubio at the start of the month claiming that the popular app has been trying to censor content in US in order to be in line with the interests of the Chinese government.

“[Chinese apps] are increasingly being used to censor content and silence open discussion on topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese Government and Communist Party,” Rubio said at the time.

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