Is TikTok running out of time?
Being a member of the baby boomer generation, I am continually surprised and amused by the expanding influence of social media on contemporary discourse. The younger generations don't seem to be able to go more than a short while without it. TikTok and Twitter are two of the industry's biggest media companies, but I don't use either one personally, so I may not be qualified to talk about them. Nonetheless, I'm going to do so with regard to just one of the many issues both raise: their implications for U.S. national security.
ByteDance, a Chinese company, owns TikTok, but due to its 2018 merger with Musical, TikTok's status has been under investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) for several years. CFIUS may reject a transaction if it determines there is a threat to our national security. The courts blocked the Trump administration's attempts to either outright ban TikTok or force its sale to a US company. Although the Biden administration is not pursuing a ban, reports of a potential sale continue to surface and are then promptly denied. It appears that nobody is speaking who is actually knowledgeable.
CFIUS evaluates whether a potential investment poses a risk to American national security. On the surface, it may seem difficult to understand how teen dance videos and other forms of entertainment could pose a security risk, but as is typically the case with media acquisitions or mergers, the problem lies in the data the company acquires, where it is stored, and who has access to it.
The majority of the information that social media companies collect about users is personal data. This raises issues if an adversary, in this case China, has access to information that they could use to disseminate false information, engage in propaganda, or carry out other nefarious activities. The Chinese government "could use it to control data collection on millions of users, or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations," FBI Director Christopher Wray recently told the House Homeland Security Committee.
TikTok initially denied that China could access its data, but it has since admitted that this isn't always the case. Therefore, it is the responsibility of CFIUS to ascertain whether the Chinese government has access to the data and, if so, whether it is relevant. Approving the company's sale to a U.S. entity is one way to avoid that discussion. But that would inevitably come with a condition: TikTok would have to give up control over its data. If the company rejected that, China might refuse to allow ByteDance to proceed with the sale.
In contrast, Elon Musk, a citizen of the United States, now owns the American company Twitter. His actions and remarks have sparked calls for an investigation into Twitter's acquisition in Congress and other places. When questioned, President Biden said he thought it should be looked at but made it clear he wasn't saying the company was at fault. After initially saying there was no need for an investigation, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has since partially apologized and said she was mistaken, suggesting that if there is a risk, an investigation would be appropriate. She is now more in line with the president thanks to this. The problem is that Musk allegedly has Chinese and Saudi Arabian minority foreign partners.
In contrast, Elon Musk, a citizen of the United States, now owns the American company Twitter. His actions and remarks have sparked calls for an investigation into Twitter's acquisition in Congress and other places. When questioned, President Biden said he thought it should be looked at but made it clear he wasn't saying the company was at fault. After initially saying there was no need for an investigation, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has since partially apologized and said she was mistaken, suggesting that if there is a risk, an investigation would be appropriate. She is now more in line with the president thanks to this. The problem is that Musk allegedly has Chinese and Saudi Arabian minority foreign partners.Whether foreign parties can access inside knowledge about the company or the data that is one of the company's biggest assets is particularly crucial in cases involving social media entities.
There is no longer a board of directors for Twitter, and there is no indication that foreign investors are involved in its management, at least not publicly. The remaining concern is who owns or has access to the enormous amounts of personal information Twitter gathers. I concur with the president that this merits investigation, but it doesn't appear likely that it will find anything to be concerned about in terms of national security at this time.
However, the calls for an investigation do bring up the question of whether arming CFIUS is a good idea. Although those who are worried about Musk's management of the company may be using CFIUS as a handy tool for investigating him, there doesn't appear to be much of a connection between this and a genuine national security threat. But if it becomes a habit, it will discourage foreign investment, which will limit future economic growth and job creation.
Lastly, these two instances serve as a reminder of the growing significance of data in our lives. When people talk about security, they typically refer to hardware or software. However, the prevalence of social media and the sensitive personal data it generates and stores raises real national security concerns about whether data can be used to compromise people or deceive them. In that regard, the case against TikTok is probably stronger than the one against Twitter, but it might be a good idea to take a close look at what is happening with both platforms.
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