The Chinese-owned video application TikTok may be a national security threat to the US and should be investigated, two key senators said in a letter to the acting director of national intelligence.

“TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” Republican Senator Tom Cotton and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a letter Thursday to Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire.

A man holding a phone walks past a sign of Chinese company ByteDance's app TikTok, known locally as Douyin, at the International Artificial Products Expo in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China on October 18, 2019 (Picture: Reuters)

TikTok, owned by the Chinese company Bytedance Inc., has been downloaded over 110 million times in the US and its growing popularity creates “national security risks,” the senators wrote. Their concerns include the safety of data on the platform, potential censorship and possible foreign influence campaigns in the US, they said.

The letter is part of growing pressure on the US government to investigate ByteDance and, more broadly, step up efforts to review the potential security threats of Chinese technology. Earlier this month, Republican Senator Marco Rubio wrote to the Treasury Department to ask for a national security investigation into ByteDance, the world’s largest startup with a valuation of $75 billion according to CB Insights.

Schumer and Cotton warned Thursday that China may compel TikTok to turn over the data it collects, which includes “user content and communications, IP address, location-related data, device identifiers, cookies, metadata, and other sensitive personal information.”

“Without an independent judiciary to review requests made by the Chinese government for data or other actions, there is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request,” the senators wrote. Even though TikTok says that it operates outside China and keeps US data in the US, ByteDance must follow Chinese laws and turn over any data requested by the government, they added.

TikTok is a relatively rare example of a Chinese social media platform achieving global success. It is mostly known for lighthearted content -- including lip syncing and dancing -- uploaded by mostly teenage users. The app’s popularity showed signs of waning in the third quarter of the year, with global user-downloads falling 4% from a year earlier.

Beyond the security of user data, TikTok could also be used for spreading disinformation, similar to the campaign Russia waged in the US ahead of the last presidential election, the senators said. It is “a potential target of foreign influence campaigns like those carried out during the 2016 election on US-based social media platforms,” according to the letter.

Alleged Censorship

The senators said they also are concerned that the platform censors or manipulates content. “TikTok reportedly censors materials deemed politically sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party,” they said. This included “content related to the recent Hong Kong protests, as well as references to Tiananmen Square, Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, and the treatment of Uighurs.”

Facebook Inc.’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has also warned that the censored version of the Internet could spread across the globe if other platforms do not fight for free speech. Six of the top 10 largest Internet platforms are now in Chinese, he said.

“Until recently, the Internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free-expression values,” he said in an address at Georgetown University last week. “There’s no guarantee these values will win out.”