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As someone who covered the TikTok saga during the waning days of the Trump presidency, I must confess I did have some degree of skepticism with the belief by the former president and his people that a short-video app popular with teenagers was actually a stealth tool used by the Communist Chinese to spy on Americans.
Brendan Carr, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, hit me with some revelations that appear to confirm the worst fears of Trump and his national security team about the app and how it’s being used by China to gather data on American citizens to spy on us.
In 2020, Trump wanted to ban TikTok, so of course President Biden reversed course. But if Sleepy Joe cares about the Chinese threat to our national security, he should put aside his Trump animus and listen to what Carr has to say about the possible dangers posed by something that could be sucking the social media life out of unsuspecting people for nefarious purposes.
Again, I was a skeptic. What could the Chinese do with information gleaned from dance videos and comedy sketches? The first point Carr made to me is that TikTok isn’t just an ordinary app — it’s the most popular in the world; the TikTok logo has become omnipresent at American sporting events, from Yankees games to MSG during Stanley Cup playoffs.
With 1 billion active monthly users, it collects a lot of data. Like all of our “free” social media platforms, TikTok siphons swaths of information from users to make money, which is why I get so many online targeted ads based on my search history.
Carr, appointed by Trump to the FCC, lays out a pretty compelling case that unlike US big tech firms, profits aren’t the only motivating factor in TikTok’s business model.
All this user data — from searches to downloads to anything touched by the app — feed the Chinese Communist surveillance state, he believes, which wants to supplant our dominance as a world economic leader.
Answering to the CCP
You see, TikTok is owned by a Chinese holding company called ByteDance. Unlike executives and board members at US tech giants, its management priority isn’t serving the interests of shareholders. It answers to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and, ultimately, its power-hungry supreme leader, Xi Jinping.
Little background on China Inc.: It doesn’t matter how many US investors are involved in Chinese companies (ByteDance has significant US private equity and VC investments). The commissars really run the show.
A Good example is Alibaba, China’s equivalent of Amazon. Company founder Jack Ma attracted significant US investor interest for a 2014 IPO that appeared on the New York Stock Exchange in one of the most sought-after listings in recent history.
But for all the US fanfare, the commissars never loosened their grip on Alibaba or Ma himself. IPO disclosure documents stated as much, warning that the Chinese government “exercises significant control over China’s economic growth . . . providing preferential treatment to particular industries or companies.”
Following the public offering, Ma went on to become one of the world’s richest people, worth about $26 billion, a philanthropist and activist who had a tendency of publicly saying stuff that pissed off China’s authoritarian rulers.
He also suffered a similar fate as others who crossed their business partners in the politburo and suddenly and without explanation disappeared; he became the subject of scorn and ridicule in China’s state-run media, and a target of China’s regulators.
Maybe he ended up in one of the country’s infamous gulags or maybe he was re-educated under less onerous conditions. Either way, now that Ma has been spotted out and about, he just keeps his mouth shut.
Again, ByteDance is not a public company so there is no regulatory mandate to provide specific legal disclosures about the commissars’ role in its operations.
Based on public statements by TikTok officials, that role would appear minimal. Its servers were secure. Team Biden appears to have bought ByteDance’s explanation.
That hasn’t assuaged many GOPers in the national security and telecom apparatus. Carr, a long-time telecom lawyer and policy wonk, kept looking for ways to rein in the company. His worst fears received some confirmation recently with a report from BuzzFeed News that obtained recordings showing how China is allegedly all over TikTok’s US user-information.
“Everything is seen in China,” one TikTok official explained.
Oddly, TikTok really didn’t deny the report. A spokeswoman blandly stated: “… we hire experts in their fields, continually work to validate our security standards, and bring in reputable, independent third parties to test our defenses.”
The spokeswoman didn’t return my call and email for comment.
Carr has written Google and Apple, demanding they stop carrying TikTok in their apps stores. If the GOP regains control of Congress, hearings are likely.
In the meantime, Carr also wants Sleepy Joe to step in and stop what he believes is China’s blatant data theft before it’s too late — even if that would require our famously obtuse commander in chief to wake up and smell the data breaches.