In Letter, Bennet Calls TikTok an “Unacceptable Threat” to U.S. National Security
Washington, D.C. — Today, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet called on Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai to remove TikTok from their app stores immediately given its unacceptable risk to U.S. national security.
“Like most social media platforms, TikTok collects vast and sophisticated data from its users, including faceprints and voiceprints. Unlike most social media platforms, TikTok poses a unique concern because Chinese law obligates ByteDance, its Beijing-based parent company, to ‘support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work,’” wrote Bennet.
In the letter, Bennet highlights the danger of TikTok’s extensive reach in the United States. TikTok is now the third-most popular social media app in the U.S. with more than 100 million American users, who spend an average of more than 80 minutes per day on the app. Bennet describes how the combination of TikTok’s reach, aggressive data collection, and obligations under Chinese law threaten U.S. security.
“Beijing’s requirement raises the obvious risk that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could weaponize TikTok against the United States, specifically, by forcing ByteDance to surrender Americans’ sensitive data or manipulate the content Americans receive to advance China’s interests,” continued Bennet in the letter. “No company subject to CCP dictates should have the power to accumulate such extensive data on the American people or curate content to nearly a third of our population.”
Bennet goes on to describe a troubling pattern of behavior at TikTok and ByteDance, including past efforts to limit content critical of the CCP and disseminate pro-Chinese propaganda to American audiences.
“Last year, Congress recognized the unacceptable security risks from TikTok and banned it from all federal government devices. At least 27 state governments have also passed full or partial bans on the app. Given these grave and growing concerns, I ask that you remove TikTok from your respective app stores immediately,” concluded Bennet.
Bennet is a leading voice in Congress urging common-sense policy to hold powerful digital platforms accountable to the public interest. On Sunday, Bennet will deliver the keynote address at Silicon Flatirons, Colorado Law’s flagship conference on “The Internet’s Midlife Crisis.” Bennet will describe the vast and unchecked power of Big Tech over American democracy and society and call for reasserting the public interest through common-sense rules and oversight.
Last year, Bennet introduced the Digital Platform Commission Act, first-of-its-kind legislation to establish an expert federal body empowered to provide comprehensive, sector-specific regulation and oversight of digital platforms to protect consumers, promote competition, and defend the public interest. In December, Bennet helped pass the Children and Media Research Advancement Act, which directs the National Institutes of Health and Department of Health and Human Services to research technology’s effects on child development. In July 2020, Bennet and then-Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) urged Facebook to heed recommendations of a civil rights audit of the companies policies and practices by strengthening efforts to protect civil rights, remove hate speech, and combat voter suppression on its platforms. Earlier that year, Bennet wrote to Facebook urging it to assume greater responsibility for the damage its platforms have caused to democratic values around the world, citing examples from Brazil, the European Union, the Philippines, and Myanmar.
The text of the letter is available HERE and below.
Dear Mr. Cook and Mr. Pichai:
I write with grave concern about the presence of TikTok on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. TikTok is now the third-most used social media app in the United States, with over 100 million monthly active users. Today, roughly 36 percent of Americans over age 12 now use TikTok, including 61 percent of Americans ages 12 to 34. On average, American TikTok users spend an average of 80 minutes per day on the app – more than Facebook and Instagram combined.
Like most social media platforms, TikTok collects vast and sophisticated data from its users, including faceprints and voiceprints. Unlike most social media platforms, TikTok poses a unique concern because Chinese law obligates ByteDance, its Beijing-based parent company, to “support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work.” Beijing’s requirement raises the obvious risk that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could weaponize TikTok against the United States, specifically, by forcing ByteDance to surrender Americans’ sensitive data or manipulate the content Americans receive to advance China’s interests.
These obvious risks render TikTok, in its current form, an unacceptable threat to the national security of the United States. No company subject to CCP dictates should have the power to accumulate such extensive data on the American people or curate content to nearly a third of our population. Given these risks, I urge you to remove TikTok from your respective app stores immediately.
TikTok’s reach provides it enormous influence over how Americans consume and process information. According to a Pew survey in 2022, a third of TikTok’s adult users report that they regularly access “news” from the app. The notion that Americans could treat TikTok as a credible news source is especially troubling given past reports that it has limited content critical of the CCP, along with ByteDance’s history of using TopBuzz, a now defunct news app, to disseminate pro-China propaganda to Americans. Recent reporting by Forbes also describes how staff at TikTok and ByteDance “secretly hand-pick videos and supercharge their distribution, using a practice known internally as ‘heating.’” Given this context, we should accept the very real possibility that the CCP could compel TikTok, via ByteDance, to use its influence to advance Chinese government interests, for example, by tweaking its algorithm to present Americans content to undermine U.S. democratic institutions or muffle criticisms of CCP policy toward Hong Kong, Taiwan, or its Uighur population.
TikTok’s prevalence in our country also allows it to amass extensive data on the American people, including device information, search and viewing history, message content, IP addresses, faceprints, and voiceprints. In April 2022, independent security researchers discovered that TikTok also had the capacity to engage in “keylogging,” allowing it to monitor Americans’ keystrokes and inputs on third-party web browsers opened in the app, such as Apple’s Safari and Google Chrome.
These practices are consistent with TikTok’s pattern of aggressive data collection. In 2019, TikTok paid $5.7 million to settle a complaint from the Federal Trade Commission over allegations that the app (then operating as Musical.ly) had illegally collected personal information from children, in an apparent violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. TikTok’s aggressive data harvesting should come as no surprise given its origins in a totalitarian state with no respect for privacy, civil rights, or due process, and where Orwellian surveillance and state propaganda are the norm.
TikTok’s vast influence and aggressive data collection pose a specific threat to U.S. national security because of its parent company’s obligations under Chinese law. Article 7 of China’s National Intelligence Law decrees that “any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work.” Article 14 provides Chinese state security agencies the authority to demand cooperation from companies like ByteDance, while Articles 16 and 17 allow intelligence agents to access relevant materials and files and make use of its communications tools and facilities.
Concern about TikTok’s data sharing is not theoretical. In November 2022, TikTok confirmed that China-based employees could gain remote access to European user data. Last year, BuzzFeed News revealed that China-based employees repeatedly accessed nonpublic information about U.S. users, contradicting sworn testimony from a TikTok executive to the U.S. Senate. According to a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department, cited by BuzzFeed, “Everything is seen in China.”
Last year, Congress recognized the unacceptable security risks from TikTok and banned it from all federal government devices. At least 27 state governments have also passed full or partial bans on the app. Given these grave and growing concerns, I ask that you remove TikTok from your respective app stores immediately.
We appreciate your attention to this urgent matter.