Capitol Hill

Is using TikTok a national security risk?

The chairman of a national security subcommittee in the House of Representatives is worried that federal employees who use TikTok, Grindr and other mobile applications owned by foreign governments could be susceptible to blackmail or become national security vulnerabilities.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., chairman of the subcommittee on national security on the House Oversight Committee, wrote to the chief executives of Apple and Google to ask the tech giants how they screen mobile app developers and those companies’ overseas affiliations before they can appear in an online app store.

“By collecting personal information on U.S. government personnel who have access to classified information, foreign adversaries may attempt to expose them to blackmail, tailor intelligence spotting or recruitment activities to specific targets, or exert undue foreign influence in U.S. policy making,” Lynch wrote to Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai. “In addition, artificial intelligence could enable foreign adversaries to manipulate user-provided data to create profiles on average U.S. citizens that could be leveraged in future military conflicts or diplomatic disputes.”

Lynch’s concerns also extends to potential military uses.

“Artificial intelligence could enable foreign adversaries to manipulate user-provided data to create profiles on average U.S. citizens that could be leveraged in future military disputes,” Lynch wrote.

Federal users would be of particular concern because they have access to government networks that would be valuable to adversaries.

U.S. government leaders have previously said they are worried about apps such as TikTok, a video-sharing social media platform, and Grindr, a popular LGBTQ data app, that are owned by Chinese-based companies. Primarily, their concerns are rooted in a Chinese law that all but requires Chinese tech companies to overturn customer data to its regime.

“Congress has a responsibility to protect the privacy of American citizens and the national security of the United States while foreign entities and governments invest in economic and technological advancement,” Lynch wrote. “Deliberate, thorough, and transparent oversight of foreign operated mobile applications promotes these goals.”

Lynch submitted eight questions to the tech leaders asking how they determine to add new programs to their app stores and what type of information developers have to provide to, including if they have to submit the country of origin of the developer. The congressman also wanted to know if the companies have programs in place to determine if applications are following user consent agreements.

This isn’t a new concern for the federal government. Agencies have banned the use of products made by Kaspersky, a cybersecurity company based out of Russia, and the FBI has expressed concerns about application and products developed in Russia.

“The FBI considers any mobile application or similar product developed in Russia ... to be a potential counterintelligence threat, based on the data the product collects, its privacy and terms of use policies, and the legal mechanisms available to the Government of Russia that permit access to data within Russia’s borders," the FBI wrote in a Nov. 25 response to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

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