Key US Intelligence Official Casts Shade on TikTok, Chinese Tech

Add a top U.S. intelligence official to the list of Americans expressing concern about Chinese-made technology and Chinese social media platforms like TikTok. 

General Paul Nakasone, who heads both the U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, told lawmakers Tuesday there are multiple reasons to be wary of China’s rapid expansion in cyberspace, calling Beijing “a very formidable foe.”

“TikTok concerns me for a number of different reasons,” Nakasone said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “One is that the data that they have. Secondly is the algorithm and the control. Who has the algorithm?”  

Third, he said, “is the broad platform” both for unleashing potential influence operations but also for the ability to give China a way to “turn off the message.” 

Last month, the United States moved forward with plans to ban TikTok — a social media app used by more than 100 million Americans — from government devices. Some U.S. lawmakers have called for giving U.S. President Joe Biden the ability to ban use of the social media app nationwide. 

Others, however, object to giving Biden the ability to issue a blanket nationwide ban, arguing TikTok is only a small part of a larger issue.  

“The threat that everyone is talking about is TikTok, and how it could enable surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party or facilitate the spread of malign influence campaigns in the U.S,” Democratic Senator Mark Warner told reporters.”Before TikTok, however, it was Huawei and ZTE, which threatened our nation’s telecommunications networks. And before that, it was Russia’s Kaspersky Lab.”

“We need a comprehensive, risk-based approach that proactively tackles sources of potentially dangerous technology before they gain a foothold in America,” he said.

The Restrict Act, being pushed by Warner and others, would establish a rule-based process — informed by the U.S. intelligence community and directed by the Department of Commerce — to identify and address foreign technological threats. 

For its part, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, has dismissed concerns it would improperly use user data as “political theater.” 

But concerns about Chinese companies and Chinese technology keep growing. 

On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported U.S. defense officials are worried that  Chinese-made ship-to-shore cranes used at many of America’s ports could be used to spy on materials being shipped in and out of the U.S. 

“Communist China has monopolized the port crane industry, and I will continue to spearhead efforts to decouple from the regime in Beijing and incentivize the near-shoring and reshoring of our strategic manufacturing capabilities,” Republican Congressman Carlos Gimenez told VOA when asked about the potential for Chinese espionage at U.S. ports. “I will fight to protect our critical infrastructure from the CCP’s espionage tactics.”

Tensions also have been rising since the U.S. shot down what it identified as a Chinese spy balloon last month after it had traveled across much of the continental United States.

And Biden is expected to issue an executive order in the coming days that would tighten rules on the ability of U.S. companies to invest in China. 

China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang chastised the U.S. Tuesday, telling reporters in Beijing that Washington’s China policy has “entirely deviated from the rational.” 

But Nakasone told lawmakers that politicians and businesses alike would be smart to be careful about how they make use of Chinese-made platforms and technology. 

“What I would do is ensure that the areas that are most sensitive to our operations are well-sensored, and I have the confidence that’s what’s being utilized there. I understand where that information may be going,” the CYBERCOM commander said.  

“I would take a very, very hard look at anything that would come from an adversarial nation,” Nakasone said, though he acknowledged it would be “very difficult” to proceed with an all-out ban of Chinese products. 

“So much of what we do is based upon international trade,” he said, “and China has the corner on some things.”

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