Does TikTok need a new parent company? Senate mulls implications

by Braxton Taylor

Lawmakers are “getting some indication” that TikTok is being used to shape Americans’ opinions, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., told reporters Monday. But forcing China-based ByteDance to sell the app doesn’t solve everything. 

Reed said there are signs that TikTok’s algorithm is being used to influence public discourse. “And I must say, I’m not a frequent user of TikTok…we’re talking about a generational issue here. But the concerns about China having a device that is wildly popular—particularly for young people—and having the ability at some time to start inputting comment that is designed to be disinformation and upset into our political process, our social processes. So we have to think about this.” 

But “transferring control” of TikTok from ByteDance to another entity comes with its own questions, said Reed, who is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, during a Defense Writers Group event. 

“If we’re talking about transferring control of TikTok, we just simply don’t want to pass it on to another group of people whose idea and goal is to control information in the United States. So I would think we’d have to start looking seriously at what conditions and what rules we would place on a TikTok… if it was sold by the Chinese to another party.”

Reed’s comments come days after the House passed a bill that would ban the app in the U.S. unless it was sold to a non-Chinese company, amid data security concerns. The bill isn’t the first time Congress has tried to ban TikTok, and it’s unclear whether the Senate will take it up. But the White House, which has banned the app on government phones, is pushing for the Senate to pass the bipartisan bill.

“There’s basically two concerns people have about TikTok, and No. 1 is spying—what can happen with our data and what can be done with our data—and No. 2 is election influencing,” said Christoph Hebeisen, director of security intelligence research for the device security firm Lookout.

Still, the U.S. had similar challenges with election security and foreign influence during the 2016 presidential elections—with U.S.-owned platforms Twitter and Facebook, he said. Plus, digital advertising and data-sharing agreements—which TikTok has used to its advantage—also pose privacy risks. 

“Online advertising has a lot of information and…all kinds of companies handle that data,” Hebeisen said. “Now these online advertising marketplaces are relatively open and people’s advertising IDs are present there and a lot of information about them, such as their location and other information which would be rather interesting for foreign governments.”

So getting rid of TikTok or changing its parent company may not necessarily resolve U.S. leaders’ security concerns, he said.

“And that takes me back to the privacy thing. Privacy and national security are not two different things. They are really intimately intertwined. And we always have to keep that in mind,” Hebeisen said. “People need to keep a close eye if they have secrets to keep. They need to keep a really close eye on what’s going on in their feeds. And that is where they need to do their security work.”

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