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Lawmakers ask US intelligence chief to investigate if TikTok is a national security threat

Two lawmakers have asked the government’s most senior U.S. intelligence official to assess if video-sharing app TikTok could pose “national security risks” to the United States.

In a letter by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-AR), the lawmakers asked the acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire if the app maker could be compelled to turn Americans’ data over to the Chinese authorities.

TikTok has some 110 million downloads to date and has spiked in popularity for its ability to record short, snappy videos that are sharable across social media networks. But the lawmakers say because TikTok is owned by a Beijing-based company, it could be compelled by the Chinese government to turn over user data — such as location data, cookies, metadata and more — even if it’s stored on servers it owns in the United States.

Both Schumer and Cotton warn that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is “still required to adhere” to Chinese law.

“Security experts have voiced concerns that China’s vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” the letter, dated Wednesday, said. “Without an independent judiciary to review requests made by the Chinese government for data or other actions, there is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request.”

That same legal principle works both ways. U.S. companies have been shut out, or had their access limited, in some nation states — including China — over fears that they could be compelled to spy on behalf of the U.S. government.

In the aftermath of the Edward Snowden disclosures, which revealed the U.S. government’s vast surveillance operation, several major tech companies were all dropped from China’s approved state purchases list amid fear of U.S. cooperation in surveillance.

The senators also said they are concerned that the app was censoring content “deemed politically sensitive” to Beijing. In September, The Guardian revealed that the app’s moderators actively censor content relating to Tibetan independence, the Tiananmen Square massacre and the banned religious group Falun Gong.

They also said the app could pose a “counterintelligence” threat as it could be used as a foreign influence tool as seen in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

When reached, a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence would not comment.

TikTok said it was “carefully reviewing” the letter.

“We will not be offering any further comment on it at this time other than to reaffirm that TikTok is committed to being a trusted and responsible corporate citizen in the U.S., which includes working with Congress and all relevant regulatory agencies,” said TikTok spokesperson Josh Gartner.

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