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Roll Call: TikTok ‘not a great look’ for lawmakers, security experts say

Politicians with national security roles still on Chinese-owned app

Washington, September 30, 2020
ROLL CALL, JOHN DONNELLY

Despite official warnings for nearly a year about the security risks of the Chinese-owned TikTok video-sharing app, several politicians who might be ideal targets for Beijing’s spies still have accounts.

These include two former presidential candidates, plus members of Congress who oversee military, intelligence and digital security programs. Also on the list are at least a couple of House candidates, including a former Green Beret with a top-secret security clearance who is a consultant to defense contractors.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., a former CIA officer, said she has “deep reservations” about her fellow members of Congress using TikTok.

“Lawmakers are the target of significant intelligence operations, especially given the information they have access to and their influence in setting policy,” Spanberger told CQ Roll Call in a statement. “What’s more, if they do not take precautions, their actions could inadvertently send the message that TikTok is completely harmless.”

Senior members’ use of TikTok

The TikTok app became available in the United States two years ago. By some accounts, nearly half the U.S. population has downloaded it.

TikTok does not operate in China, but its parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, would be legally bound to give the Chinese government information about TikTok users if it were sought, digital experts said.

The Defense Department banned TikTok nine months ago, and experts’ warnings about the app’s potential risks date even earlier than that. Now, President Donald Trump is trying to ban TikTok in the United States.

In an executive order last month, Trump said the app could allow China “to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.”

TikTok executives have said the accusations are unfounded, and some experts contend the concerns are overblown. But U.S. military personnel and thousands of government civilians are officially forbidden from using the app on their work phones and discouraged from using it on their personal devices.

Some members of Congress who once had TikTok accounts have deleted them, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., now an outspoken critic of the app. Rubio is the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Yet a handful of senior lawmakers still have TikTok accounts. These include Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy. Markey is also a senior member of the Commerce Committee’s panel on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet. And he has long criticized social media companies for failing to adequately protect privacy. 

Markey is using TikTok in his reelection campaign, including with a video posted this week.

Other members with TikTok accounts include:

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, a former presidential candidate who serves on two House Appropriations subcommittees, Defense and Milcon-VA, where he oversees the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies. Ryan posted a video on TikTok just last month.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, also a former presidential candidate, who serves in the Army National Guard and sits on the Armed Services Committee.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., whose committee assignments include Veterans’ Affairs.

Candidates for Congress

One of the House candidates who has a TikTok account is Democrat Rishi Kumar, a Saratoga, California, councilman and Silicon Valley software executive. Kumar is running to unseat fellow Democrat Anna G. Eshoo in California’s 18th District, located west of San Jose on the Pacific coast.

Another TikTok user is Nick Freitas, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates who is looking to unseat Spanberger in Virginia’s 7th District, west of Richmond.

Freitas is the former Green Beret with a “top secret/sensitive compartmentalized information” security clearance, according to his LinkedIn profile. He is president of Gold Team Consulting, a company that helps contractors secure bids at the Pentagon and other federal offices.

Joe Desilets, Frietas’ campaign manager, said the candidate removed TikTok from his phone earlier this year. But Desilets did not reply to a question about precisely when that happened. Freitas’ account is still on TikTok. His most recent post was in March, three months after the Pentagon warned its personnel and contractors not to use the app.

Other than Freitas, the politicians with TikTok accounts did not reply to CQ Roll Call’s repeated requests for comment.

Ryan has previously downplayed the security risk from his use of the app.

“It’s not like I’m doing some high-level counterintelligence through TikTok,” Ryan told CQ Roll Call in May.

Levels of risk debated

The politicians use their TikTok accounts to post everything from serious campaign videos to silly lip-syncing. Some post videos only rarely, if at all. Or, like Freitas, they stopped doing so a few months ago and have taken the app off their phones. In Gabbard’s case, there are no posts at all.

Most experts said the frequency of posting videos on TikTok is not what creates the risk. Signing up to begin with is the action that provides TikTok with user information, they said.

Taking the app off one’s phone reduces the amount of additional personal data that the Chinese government could potentially access — but does not undo previous transmissions, they said.

“The app is collecting a lot of information about users’ interests, locations, habits and social networks,” said John Dermody, a digital security expert who was formerly an adviser to the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security and who is now counsel at O’Melveny & Myers. “This can be very valuable if you are a foreign intelligence service trying to identify vulnerabilities in another government or trying to identify a particular individual.”

Ainikki Riikonen, a research assistant in the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank, said in an email that taking the app off one’s phone might lessen the risk. But, she said, “You can’t exactly ask for your data back.”

Adam Segal, a digital security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said taking the app off a lawmaker’s phone probably ensures that the security risk is relatively low.

“My concern would not be how much they used it (tracking would happen no matter how much you used it), or if they used it for a certain type of content, but if the app was on the same phone that they did official U.S. government business or that had significant other personal information,” Segal said via email.

Intelligence targets

At TikTok’s request, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction Sunday that froze part of Trump’s proposed ban on the company’s app. 

TikTok is in talks with Oracle and Walmart about possibly forming a U.S.-based company that would satisfy Trump’s demands, but those talks have hit snags.

Not everyone agrees with Trump about the seriousness of the TikTok threat. Segal and others have pointed out that Beijing’s reported hacks of the personal data of millions of Americans, including government officials, through intrusions into the personnel files at the Office of Personnel Management and other entities, has created more of a risk than TikTok.

“But,” Segal said, “if in your job or campaign you are warning about the national security risk of Chinese technology, it is not a great look to be using TikTok.”

Riikonen of the Center for New American Security agreed.

“It certainly doesn’t set a good example,” Riikonen said. “And the fact that they are more likely to be intelligence targets than your average citizen likely increases the risks for them, too."

 

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