WASHINGTON — What TikTok doesn’t tell you in its digital feed is at least as concerning as how its posts can influence opinion, according to the leader of both U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency.
Gen. Paul Nakasone told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 7 that while the organizations he oversees are wary of the popular Chinese-owned app’s data collection, its tightly tailored algorithms and its international reach, what TikTok withholds can be just as damaging.
“TikTok concerns me, for a number of different reasons,” said Nakasone, whose teams are tasked with protecting U.S. defense networks and tending to cryptographic standards and intelligence. “It’s not only the fact that you can influence something, but you can also turn off the message, as well, when you have such a large population of listeners.”
The short-form video-sharing app, free to download, has more than 100 million users in the U.S. alone.
The Pew Research Center in October found about one-quarter of U.S. adults under 30 regularly get news from TikTok. Users of the app, however, are “far less likely” than users of Twitter or Facebook to seek out news there, the center said.
“This is a means upon which, you know, you receive information or don’t receive information,” Nakasone said. “I always look at that, in terms of being able to measure that risk.”
While other apps and websites harvest and sell user details — and have been criticized for promoting inflammatory or racist content — U.S. government officials have singled out TikTok over fears of its Chinese ties. Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Missouri Republican, on Tuesday told Nakasone he agrees with his concerns and thinks TikTok is “a Chinese AI weapon aimed directly at the United States of America.” The general did not respond.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, an internet-technology juggernaut with research-and-development centers across the world. It has previously said it doesn’t share information with the Chinese government. U.S. defense officials consider China a top national security threat.
TikTok Chief Executive Officer Shou Zi Chew is slated to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee this month. He is expected to be interrogated over “consumer privacy and data security practices, the platforms’ impact on kids, and their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party,” according to a public notice.
The scheduled hearing follows a wave of U.S. government action, both state and federal, taken against TikTok.
Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee advanced a bill 24-16 to ban TikTok over the objections of the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York. And on Tuesday, a bipartisan group of 12 senators introduced legislation that would empower the Commerce Department to restrict or ban hardware and software, among other technologies, if they are deemed hazardous to national security.
“Today, everybody is talking about TikTok and the ability of that platform to be used by the Communist Party both to take on data, but also, potentially, as a malign influence and propaganda tool,” Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said at a press conference. “What we’re trying to deal with here is the risk of insecure information and communication technologies, ICT.”
Defense News reporter Bryant Harris contributed to this article.
Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.