Social media giant TikTok and its nebulous connections to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) present a threat to U.S. national security, according to one expert.
Geoffrey Cain, an independent investigative journalist and author of a book on the CCP’s efforts to build a totalitarian surveillance state, believes that TikTok’s troubled emergence, shadowy corporate structure, and connection to China’s data laws make it a unique threat to the United States.
“It is a disaster waiting to happen, because TikTok, though the company denies it, is fundamentally obligated to follow the laws of China, the laws that were created by the Chinese Communist Party.”
TikTok’s Move to US Shrouded in Secrecy
Cain highlighted that TikTok is not only owned by Chinese corporation ByteDance, but was also created by one of the company’s leaders in artificial intelligence (AI) using funding from U.S.-based Sequoia Capital.
Moreover, Cain said that TikTok’s move into the world market occurred under dubious circumstances, as the company only reached a global audience after it was paired with the Santa Monica office of Music.ly, another Chinese-owned social media company.
TikTok did not inform U.S. officials about the merger despite both companies’ ties to China, Cain said.
“There are many red flags, but the biggest red flag about this acquisition is that TikTok did not notify the U.S. government about the acquisition,” Cain said.
“That should sound alarm bells. Why did TikTok decide not to do that review? It’s as if they kind of snuck into the market and placed their software in the hands of the next generation.”
Following that revelation, the Trump administration attempted to get TikTok banned or otherwise sold to an American parent company, and the case has been under review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) ever since.
Cain recently testified before the U.S. Senate about the issue. In his testimony (pdf) he discussed documented ties between ByteDance, TikTok, and the CCP, including internal meetings at the companies in which employees allegedly praised the CCP.
Now, Cain said he believes the CCP is using TikTok to spread its surveillance and censorship around the globe.
“TikTok executives have admitted in the past that the algorithm that TikTok [uses] has been used to suppress bad news coming out of China,” Cain said.
Cain referred to the sworn testimony of one TikTok executive who testified before the British Parliament in 2020 that TikTok censored or otherwise suppressed information about the genocide of the Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province at the request of CCP authorities.
Cain also pointed to a moderation guideline leaked back in back in 2019 that showed that TikTok and ByteDance instructed the global moderators, including in America, to suppress any videos showing poverty, slums, or ugly people in China, and to censor critical comments about China’s actions in Tibet and Tiananmen Square.
TikTok has said that these policies are no longer in effect.
The CCP Can Access Everything
At the heart of Cain’s concern about the risk of TikTok was the intersection of CCP data laws and the relationship between the company and its China-based owners.
The CCP’s National Intelligence Law and National Security Law, for example, require all companies operating within mainland China or with a majority Chinese stake to hand over all data to the CCP upon request.
This means that any executive at TikTok or ByteDance, if based in China, could be legally compelled by the CCP to hand over the company’s data, including information on users’ facial recognition, browsing activity, and key-logged passwords.
As such, some security experts have said that TikTok is a “weaponized” application that benefits the CCP’s military and espionage campaigns.
“This is where the TikTok and the ByteDance connection becomes extremely problematic,” Cain said.
“There’s not going to be a separate line between [TikTok and ByteDance], the Chinese Communist Party will see TikTok as fundamentally a Chinese company and one that needs to report to the Chinese Communist Party.”
TikTok previously said that all American user data was stored within the United States.
TikTok has since admitted that this is not true, however, and in a September congressional hearing, TikTok executives refused to commit to stopping the flow of American data to China.
Cain feared that such data could all too easily be leveraged by the CCP to hunt down and silence its political enemies.
“These could be Hong Kong dissidents, these could be American military commanders, [these] could be anybody who might be of an interesting nature to the Chinese Communist Party,” Cain said.
“Those executives are required by Chinese law to hand over the data.”
A Threat to the Free and Open Flow of Information
With that in mind, Cain said that allowing TikTok to continue to operate in the United States while it was still owned by ByteDance was a direct threat to U.S. national security.
Moreover, he said, it was incompatible with the freedom of expression valued by democratic nations.
“What is it that separates TikTok and ByteDance operating around the world from what’s happening in Xinjiang?” Cain asked.
“[TikTok] might not be literally running the concentration camps, but they have been involved in suppressing and censoring news about these atrocities. They’re using fundamentally the same technologies as what the Chinese government has been using to monitor and surveil its people.”
To that end, Cain said that the only way to effectively render the threat posed to U.S. citizens by the app inert was to ensure its relationship with ByteDance, and China, is terminated.
Only by transferring ownership of the company away from the CCP and to a domestic company, Cain said, could the threat be mitigated.
“TikTok should at minimum be sold to an American company,” Cain said. “We cannot have major Communist Party-connected companies in China running massive social media platforms in America.”
“It’s the Trojan horse. It’s the mole. It’s everything that you do not want in a modern democracy.”
The Epoch Times has requested comment from TikTok