Pulling the Plug on TikTok Will Be Harder Than It Looks

In the summer of 2020, in full re-election mode and looking for new ways to punish China, President Donald J. Trump threatened to cut TikTok off the phones of millions of Americans unless its parent company agreed to divest all of its US operations. to US owners. The effort collapsed.

Now, more than two years later, after extensive studies into how Chinese authorities could use the app for everything from surveillance to information operations, the Biden administration is attempting a strikingly similar move. It is better organized, vetted by lawyers, and coordinated with new bills in Congress that appear to have considerable bipartisan support.

However, making TikTok safe from Chinese exploitation, as a tool for Chinese officials to monitor the likes and whereabouts of Americans, as an entry point into the phones that contain your entire life, and as a way to Generating misinformation turns out to be more difficult than that. aspect.

Tensions over the app will come to a head on Thursday, when Singapore-based TikTok CEO Shou Chew testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a hearing that will give Democrats and Republicans alike a rare opportunity to express his suspicions directly. to the company On Tuesday, Mr. Chew posted a TikTok from the company’s main account, stating that “some politicians” are trying to take the app away from 150 million users in the United States, including small businesses.

But after two years of negotiations with TikTok over building new safeguards, it’s unclear if there’s anything the company can do, other than turn the entire operation over to the Americans, that would satisfy the concerns of US intelligence agencies. The Justice Department’s No. 2 official and others have effectively rejected proposals from TikTok’s corporate parent, ByteDance, to address the concerns.

Any decision to remove the application, whether banning it for 150 million users in the United States or blocking more downloads would be politically fraught for Biden. No one encapsulated the political dilemma more concisely than Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary, who is at the center of new export controls imposed on high-tech goods to China.

“The politics in me believe that they will literally lose every voter under the age of 35, forever,” he recently told Bloomberg News.

Ms. Raimondo and other officials are quick to add that bad policy is not a reason to back out of a full ban if the threat to national security justifies it. The issue is made more complex by the fact that some of the world’s largest news organizations, including The New York Times, now have TikTok accounts, which means that closing the app could appear to be shutting down the spread of news based. in facts to counter Chinese Disinformation.

“A lot of this is chicken game,” said James A. Lewis, who directs the cyberthreat program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But he believes Biden has a much better chance of success than his predecessor.

“Unlike the Trump administration, I think this administration has a chance to win: attitudes toward China have changed,” he said. Several new bills that would, in different ways, give explicit new authority to the president to shut down TikTok have received bipartisan support. They are driven by the intelligence community’s conclusion, contained in the Global Threat Assessment delivered to Congress, that China remains the “broadest, most active and persistent” cyberthreat to the country.

However, so far, the threat from TikTok is largely theoretical.

There have been a handful of cases of abuse, including attempts to geotag reporters who published leaked information about the company. But the administration has not produced full, declassified evidence of a systemic effort to use the app to advance the Chinese government’s collection efforts.

That hasn’t stopped nearly 30 states from banning TikTok from official government or contractor phones, and federal employees are being forced to remove it too, though not from their personal devices.

There are three areas of clear concern. The first is where TikTok stores the data of its US users. Until recently, much of it was on servers run by ByteDance in Singapore and Virginia, which many feared would allow China to require TikTok to hand over user data under Beijing’s national security laws. This year, TikTok tried to preempt this argument, saying it would remove the data of its American users from ByteDance servers and move it to servers run by Oracle, an American cloud computing company.

Then comes the tougher question: who writes the algorithm, the code that is TikTok’s secret ingredient. That code evaluates a user’s choices and uses them to select more material to feed the user: a favorite dance routine, or perhaps an interesting piece of news. The algorithms have been written in China by Chinese engineers who have refined the art of giving users what they want to see. Matt Perault and Samm Sacks recently wrote on the Lawfare blog that the concern is that “TikTok could unilaterally decide to prioritize content that would threaten or destabilize the United States.” Again, it hasn’t happened yet, at least not via TikTok.

And finally, there’s the question of whether an app whose algorithm few understand could be a gateway for outsiders, including China’s Ministry of State Security, to break into Americans’ phones, not to find out their preferences. dance, but the vast treasure. of data that they carry in their back pockets.

In November, Christopher A. Wray, director of the FBI, warned that the Chinese government could use the TikTok algorithm for “influence operations”. General Paul M. Nakasone, head of the US Cyber ​​Command and director of the National Security Agency, echoed those concerns this month, saying that “it’s not just the fact that you can influence something, but you can also turn off the message when you have such a large population of listeners.”

TikTok has tried to respond to misinformation concerns with a long list of updated policies for moderating videos, including new restrictions and tagging rules for deepfakes – highly realistic fake videos made with artificial intelligence. TikTok, for example, will not allow deepfakes of private figures and will ban those of public figures if the content is used for endorsements. He also offered more details on how he will “protect civic and electoral integrity.”

A TikTok spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

The fight over the app had already become a complicated legal matter when Biden inherited it from Trump in 2021.

Federal courts ruled that Mr. Trump did not have the power to execute his proposed ban on the app from the Apple and Google app stores, removing crucial leverage the White House had used to get ByteDance to consider selling TikTok.

Mr. Biden issued an executive order in June 2021 reversing Trump’s threat of a ban. He left in place the order requiring ByteDance to get rid of the app. But staff members of a group of federal agencies that vets foreign companies in the United States, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, were considering a third option: negotiating a deal with TikTok that would address national security concerns but not would force ByteDance. to sell the app.

Under its latest proposal, TikTok would not only store American user data on Oracle servers in the United States; The cloud computing company would also monitor its content recommendation algorithm, which TikTok says is a guard against the app being used to spread propaganda. And the entity that governs the application in the United States would be overseen by a three-person board approved by the government.

But that proposal did not satisfy the hawks in Washington. Some in the administration, including Lisa O. Monaco, the deputy attorney general, worried that its terms were not strict enough. The administration also faced mounting pressure from lawmakers who said the app should be banned outright.

Now, the Biden administration is pursuing a new strategy.

Publicly, earlier this month he backed legislation by a bipartisan group of senators that would give the Commerce Department clearer power to ban the app, potentially restoring government influence over ByteDance. Privately, administration officials told TikTok that they wanted its Chinese property to sell the app or face a possible ban. If the legislation passes, it would significantly strengthen the administration’s hand in forcing a sale.

Peter Harrell, a lawyer and former senior director for international economics and competitiveness at the National Security Council, said the proposed legislation is “important because as the US deals with TikTok and other Chinese apps, it needs some clear legal authority to regulate and compel. actions” that do not exist in current legislation.

A White House spokeswoman declined to comment beyond noting her existing support for the legislation.

At times, TikTok has undermined its own arguments. It has said it would not hand over information about its users to the Chinese government, although China’s national security law would clearly require it to do just that if the nation’s intelligence services ordered its Chinese employees to do so.

when you forbid reported In October that a China-based ByteDance team planned to use TikTok to monitor the locations of some Americans, TikTok’s communications team responded on Twitter that the publication’s work lacked “journalistic rigor and integrity.” He also said that TikTok had “never been used to attack” US politicians or journalists.

Two months later, ByteDance admitted that four of its employees, including two based in China, had gained access to the IP addresses and other data of two reporters, as well as some people connected to the reporters through their TikTok accounts. The employees were trying to determine if the people had met with ByteDance employees, so they could try to discern the source of the leaks to journalists.

TikTok dismissed the case as an anomaly and fired the employees. He said he put systems in place to prevent it from happening again. And to be sure, American companies have had similar internal incidents of privacy breaches.

But in the current atmosphere in Washington, especially after the downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon that crossed the United States in January, any evidence of Chinese surveillance fuels a deep bipartisan desire to crack down on Chinese entry points into the networks. americans. And of those, there isn’t one bigger — or more influential — than TikTok, so the path the administration takes in the coming months may set a precedent that goes well beyond TikTok’s immediate fate.

julian barnes contributed reporting from Washington.