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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Daniel Flatley and Emily Birnbaum

TikTok security deal’s prospects are clouded by FBI’s doubts, state bans

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is facing new roadblocks in its effort to address the national security concerns around TikTok after the FBI warned about the dangers of the Chinese-owned video-sharing app and five states banned it from employee phones.

The public critique from FBI Director Christopher Wray, the state bans and growing objections from Congress are building pressure on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. The panel is seeking a way to let TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance Ltd., keep operating in the United States while also preventing the possibility that the Chinese government could access user data.

A final agreement has been stalled at the Justice Department, and questions remain about whether any deal could keep all U.S. users’ data from being leaked to the Chinese government. A plan would be expected to build on an arrangement announced by TikTok in June under which U.S. user traffic is routed through servers maintained by Oracle Corp.

In the latest signal of opposition to a compromise, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Senate and the House, led by Sen. Marco Rubio, introduced a bill Tuesday that would ban TikTok from operating in the U.S. Rubio, a Florida Republican, said “it is time to ban Beijing-controlled TikTok for good.”

In response, TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter said plans to secure the platform in the U.S. were “developed under the oversight of our country’s top national security agencies”’ and are “well underway.”

“It is troubling that rather than encouraging the administration to conclude its national security review of TikTok, some members of Congress have decided to push for a politically motivated ban that will do nothing to advance the national security of the United States,” Oberwetter said in a statement.

Wray, the FBI chief, entered the fray in November, when he said he remained “extremely concerned” about TikTok and worried that China could use its proprietary algorithm to shape U.S. public opinion and gather user data. He said the FBI has shared its views with Cfius, whose review centers on the 2017 merger between Bytedance and which created TikTok in the U.S.

Wray’s comments amounted to a public intervention into the debate by Cfius, a secretive interagency panel led by the Treasury Department that reviews foreign investments in U.S. companies. It appeared to be an effort to shape the decision-making process, said James Lewis, the director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“They had an agreement drafted, DOJ and FBI didn’t like it, they didn’t think it was tough enough, so Wray did the typical Washington thing, which is to take the deal back to the table,” Lewis said.

The FBI and the Justice Department declined to comment.

But the longer the Cfius review has dragged on, the more scrutiny has focused on TikTok, especially among state officials and politicians in Washington. Five states have banned the use of TikTok on government phones, with more expected to follow, and several federal agencies are also mulling bans. The trend highlights a growing appetite among policymakers to curtail TikTok’s explosive growth in the U.S. over concerns about its ties to Beijing.

Rubio and colleagues who introduced the legislation to ban TikTok saw no room for a compromise.

“We know it’s used to manipulate feeds and influence elections,” Rubio said in a statement.

Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois called the bill “a strong step in protecting our nation from the nefarious digital surveillance and influence operations of totalitarian regimes.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, has said the platform promotes videos and trends that may prove harmful to children, and Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in October that TikTok has “a big mountain to climb” to prove that it can really keep U.S. data safe.

Tiktok has pushed back against claims about the app, calling it “misinformation.” TikTok’s top U.S. lobbyist Michael Beckerman told CBS News that TikTok is no different than any U.S.-based social media platform.

“Maybe they should consider banning all social media apps from government phones,” Beckerman said.

With Republicans taking control of the House in January, pressure will only rise on the Biden administration to be tough on TikTok.

“The calculation now is whether it’s better to do it before the Congress flips or after,” Lewis said. “If they’re smart, they’ll try and get it done before the House flips. But on the other hand, once the House flips, they’ll be critical of any deal that doesn’t go particularly hard on TikTok.”

Emily Kilcrease, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who worked on Cfius issues while in government, argues that the Cfius discussion is too far along for any major changes.

“I wouldn’t think that discrete state-level action would change the trajectory of the federal-level review or disposition of the case,” Kilcrease said, noting that even though a handful of states have instituted a ban, most have taken no action.

In that case, the question is more one of timing and whether the administration can satisfy the concerns of Wray and other national security officials.

Texas, South Dakota and Maryland are among the states that banned the app on government devices. Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita announced his state filed two lawsuits against TikTok, taking aim at the social media app’s treatment of sensitive user data and underage users.

“These decisions show that state executives are unwilling to wait for some type of federal action,” said Klon Kitchen, a technology expert with the American Enterprise Institute. “It is the federal government who has the primary responsibility for securing the national security interests of the United States.”


(Bloomberg staff writer Chris Strohm contributed to this story.)

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