Years after former President Donald Trump raised national security issues over the social media app TikTok, which is uniquely popular among younger users, the FBI now admits the app operates on behalf of the Chinese government, which “doesn’t share our [American] values.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray warned on Friday that Chinese officials have the ability to control TikTok’s recommendation algorithm “which allows them to manipulate content, and if they want to, to use it for influence operations.”
Wray made the comments during a speech at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, where he also said the app collects user data that the Chinese government could then access and use for traditional espionage operations.
“All of these things are in the hands of a government that doesn’t share our values, and that has a mission that’s very much at odds with what’s in the best interests of the United States. That should concern us,” Wray said in Ann Arbor, Mich.
FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Wray echoed these same concerns during congressional appearances last month when he was asked by lawmakers about the app’s functionality and ability to collect data on Americans.
“China’s vast hacking program is the world’s largest, and they have stolen more Americans’ personal and business data than every other nation combined,” Wray told the lawmakers.
He also said the dangers of TikTok “include the possibility that 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 if they so choose or to control software on millions of devices, which gives the opportunity to potentially tactically compromise personal devices.”
A week before this hearing, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr called on regulators to ban the app in the U.S.
“I don’t believe there is a path forward for anything other than a ban,” Carr told Axios at the time. He said there isn’t “a world in which you could come up with sufficient protection on the data that you could have sufficient confidence that it’s not finding its way back into the hands of the [Chinese Communist Party].”
The FBI’s push to inform users and lawmakers about these national security concerns comes years after President Trump initially warned people to stop using it.
In 2020, Trump discouraged people from using TikTok and threatened to ban the app in the U.S. He also said he would oversee a force of sale by the Chinese ownership to a company located in the U.S.
A split photo of former U.S. President Donald Trump in Palm Beach, Fla. on Nov. 15, 2022, and the TikTok logo shown on a mobile phone in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China, Nov. 29, 2022. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Last month, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia., said Trump “was right” to go after TikTok.
During an appearance on Fox News Sunday on Nov. 20, Warner told host Shannon Bream that the app represents a major threat to Americans’ privacy. He also discouraged parents from allowing their children to download the app.
“Well, I think Donald Trump was right. I mean, TikTok is an enormous threat,” Warner said. “So, if you’re a parent, and you’ve got a kid on TikTok, I would be very, very concerned. All of that data that your child is inputting and receiving is being stored somewhere in Beijing.”
TikTok has said it does not allow the Chinese government access to user data.
TikTok Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas said during a Senate hearing in September that the company protects user data and that Chinese government officials have no access to it.
“We will never share data, period,” Pappas said.
TikTok is currently owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, but its sale of TikTok to a U.S. company could allow for more regulations over the app and could prevent data collection from going to a foreign country.
Wray said U.S. officials and ByteDance are currently in talks over a possible agreement.
A teenager taps on the TikTok app on a smartphone. (Marijan Murat/picture alliance via Getty Images)
TikTok has confirmed the negotiations are in place.
“As Director Wray has previously said, the FBI’s input is being considered as part of our ongoing negotiations with the U.S. Government,” TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter told the Associated Press. “While we can’t comment on the specifics of those confidential discussions, we are confident that we are on a path to fully satisfy all reasonable U.S. national security concerns and have already made significant strides toward implementing those solutions.”
In the same emailed statement, TikTok clarified ByteDance is a private company and that “TikTok Inc., which offers the TikTok service in the United States, is a U.S. company bound by U.S. laws.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.