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How China Uses TikTok to Collect Your Personal Data, and Why You Should Be Concerned

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TikTok is the most downloaded app in the world. Known for short viral videos, it has tens of millions of users in the U.S. 

In order to operate successfully, TikTok collects a lot of data. It tracks account information, search history, and any content created through the platform, along with users' locations and behavioral information. 

Companies like Facebook and Google collect similar data, but there's one major difference: TikTok is based in China. 

"China has a national security law that compels every entity within its jurisdiction to aid its espionage and what they view as their national security efforts," said FCC Chairman Brendan Carr.

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This means Chinese companies are required to make all data they collect available to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with no exceptions. Carr tells CBN News that includes all the personal information TikTok's been gathering on millions of Americans.

"At the FCC we've also taken a look at other entities beholden to the CCP, whether it's Huawei, ZTE, China Mobile, and we see just a history of nefarious conduct, from business industrial espionage to blackmail. There's a lot of reasons to be concerned, not about the videos, but the underlying data going back en masse to China," Carr said.

An investigation into the national security implications of TikTok was first launched by the Treasury Department back in 2019. Then in 2020, President Donald Trump threatened to ban the entertainment platform if it didn't sell itself to a U.S. company.

Through it all, TikTok maintained it had never shared data with the Chinese government, and insisted the information of American users was secure, being handled only by U.S.-based teams. Then in June, Buzzfeed got access to a collection of leaked tapes from internal meetings at TikTok, and they told a completely different story.

"They had people inside TikTok saying, 'Everything is seen in China'. They had a master admin person who, again, was disclosing that there was almost no checks on what could go back there," Carr explained.

TikTok went on damage control, and recently assured concerned Republican lawmakers that new steps are now being taken to further secure American data, including the transition to a U.S.-based cloud services provider, which they say will soon be used to operate the app, as well as store American users' personal information

While it sounds like a step in the right direction, TikTok's CEO also admitted some China-based engineers will still require access to the app, which by law grants that same access to Beijing. 

"With that data, China is able to feed it into its artificial intelligence systems, is also perhaps able to compromise Americans," said China expert and author Gordon Chang. 

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A key part of the work that will still need to be done in China involves TikTok's algorithm. Chang says that's the biggest security concern of all. 

"Through the control of the algorithm, China is able to influence American public opinion. We know that in 2020, the Chinese military used TikTok to incite violence on American streets. TikTok glorifies drug usage in America, and there are other things that they've been doing to interfere in our political process," Chang told CBN News.

In a rare show of bipartisan cooperation, lawmakers are now saying enough is enough.

"To have this kind of information, in a sense, be vacuumed off TikTok into the Communist Party of China, and what they have been doing with a lot of technology and data acquisition, scares the dickens out of me...It's time that we put a halt to this right now," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA). 

The Senate Intelligence Committee recently sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requesting an investigation be launched into TikTok. Warner is the Chairman of the committee and believes the evidence against TikTok is overwhelming. 

"Senator Rubio and I have said, 'Alright, Federal Trade Commission, this completely falls into the area of a deceptive practice. That's what we have a law to prevent. And you need to do the investigation now,'" Warner told CBN News. 

Meanwhile, the heads of the FBI and the United Kingdom's MI5 recently issued a very clear warning about the threat posed by China. 

"The most game-changing challenge we face comes from the Chinese Communist Party. It's covertly applying pressure across the globe. This might feel abstract, but it's real and it's pressing. We need to talk about it. We need to act," said Ken McCaullum, Director General of MI5.

Sen. Warner says one step lawmakers can take immediately involves passing data privacy legislation. He points out this may be the last bipartisan issue that can be addressed ahead of the midterm elections.

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About The Author

Caitlin Burke Headshot

Caitlin Burke serves as National Security Correspondent and a general assignment reporter for CBN News. She has also hosted the CBN News original podcast, The Daily Rundown. Some of Caitlin’s recent stories have focused on the national security threat posed by China, America’s military strength, and vulnerabilities in the U.S. power grid. She joined CBN News in July 2010, and over the course of her career, she has had the opportunity to cover stories both domestically and abroad. Caitlin began her news career working as a production assistant in Richmond, Virginia, for the NBC affiliate WWBT