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China and the TikTok threat: How the White House cybersecurity team is thinking about it

Key Points
  • Several government officials and members of Congress have raised concerns about social video sharing platform TikTok's ability to protect U.S. user information from China.
  • FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers this week that he is "extremely concerned" about TikTok's operations in the U.S., which followed comments from an FCC Commissioner calling for the U.S. government to ban TikTok.
  • Principal Deputy National Cyber Director Kemba Walden said at the CNBC TEC Summit on Tuesday that the White House is concerned about the potential for what some fear is China's "massive influence operation," but reactionary policy is no replacement for strategic policy.
Cyber security education needs to be increased to ward off threats, Principal Deputy National Cyber Director says
Cyber security education needs to be increased to ward off threats, Principal Deputy National Cyber Director says

After Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers this week that he has national security concerns about TikTok's operations in the U.S., a key member of the White House's Office of the National Cyber Director expressed support for the FBI and "any measure that will raise security," but stopped short of voicing support for a ban on TikTok that some government officials think is necessary.

The Biden White House hasn't made any determination yet on a TikTok ban, Kemba Walden, Principal Deputy National Cyber Director, said at the CNBC Technology Executive Council Summit on Tuesday. But expanding on her view of a complicated national security issue with the nation's top technology rival, she added, "we want to focus on getting in front of the adversary. We don't want to take a reactionary posture in developing policy. We don't want transgressors to set our agenda. ... We are much more focused on strategic outlook. What is our agenda, and let the transgressors chase us. ... If we are reactionary, we remain reactionary. And there is a place for that ... but if we remain in that space, we're just losing more slowly."

With national defense the focus, she said the White House is looking at strategic investments to identify how to make domestic systems more resilient and counter information operations. But she also said TikTok has a responsibility to uphold.

"All of these platforms, including TikTok, must keep security in mind," she said. "Every stakeholder has a role in this space, including the users of TikTok, the developers … all platforms have that responsibility in order to be able to have a net that delivers on what we expect, and so I support any measure that will raise security so that our communities can thrive safely."

TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based tech giant ByteDance, is used by over 1 billion people worldwide every month.
Artur Widak | Nurphoto | Getty Images

Wray told members of the House Homeland Security Committee in a hearing about worldwide threats on Tuesday that he is "extremely concerned" about TikTok's operations in the U.S.

"They include the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users. Or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations if they so chose. Or to control software on millions of devices, which gives it opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices," Wray said.

Walden said she is concerned about TikTok's influence on children, but also framed the issue in terms of the larger problem of properly educating the young for the online world of information.

"I have teenagers who spend their entire lives on TikTok and because it is so absorbing, but you do wonder about the Chinese government's motivation in feeding all of that information stream to millions of Americans. And then also all the tracking that goes along with that," said CNBC's Senior Washington Correspondent Eamon Javers during the interview. "So you talk about safety has to be a priority, but if Beijing has very different priorities than you do, how do you consider this massive influence operation that China is running on TikTok for millions of Americans? At the same time they're having a very different perspective on what they want the outcome to be."

"I have children too, and I wish that just like drivers licenses are required before they drive a car, wouldn't it be lovely if they were required to have a license?" Walden said in response to Javers' question. She stressed that there was no formal plan for the U.S. government to make an investment specifically related to this concept, but added, "that's sort of where I start to think about helping our students, helping our communities become more resilient. It's not just the technology and the apps, it's the people and the processes and doctrine. ... My nine-year-old could cause a national security incident and that's terrifying, right?"

Concerns over the Chinese-owned video platform's ability to protect U.S. user information from China have grown among government officials and members of Congress in recent months. A Federal Communications Commissioner said earlier this month that the U.S. government should ban TikTok, and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) in the Treasury Department is reviewing the company's potential national security implications.

Walden said CFIUS plays an important role in national security and cybersecurity, but is traditionally used as "a surgical knife, not a hammer."

"I think it would be a mistake for CFIUS to be used as a mechanism to develop broad policy. But they definitely have a powerful tool," she said.

The issue lies with a Chinese law that allows the government to force companies to hand over internal information. TikTok parent-company ByteDance has continued to maintain that it doesn't store U.S. user data in China, where the law could be applied.

Wray said on Tuesday that law alone was "plenty of reason by itself to be extremely concerned."

In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson told CNBC on Tuesday that "we are confident that we are on a path to fully satisfy all reasonable U.S. national security concerns."

Improving cybersecurity education

Walden, who became the first person named to her White House cybersecurity position in May after serving as the assistant general counsel in Microsoft's digital crimes unit, stressed the role of education on several occasions during the interview with Javers.

"Regardless of what an app is doing, we need to really raise cybersecurity education in our systems and raise cyber awareness among our people to make sure they're resilient," she said. "Critical thinking is a great antidote to some of the work that other transgressors are working on."

The Office of the National Cyber Director was established by the Biden administration in 2021, with Chris Inglis being named the first National Cyber Director. The office serves as a principal advisor to the president on cybersecurity policy and strategy, aiming to ensure that Americans can "share in the full benefits" of the digital ecosystem while addressing and mitigating the risks and threats found in cyberspace.

Walden said increasing cybersecurity education is just one of the ways the White House is aiming to "get in front of the adversary."

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misattributed a quote to Kemba Walden, Principal Deputy National Cyber Director. The article has been updated to include proper attribution.

FBI Director Christopher Wray raises national security concerns over TikTok
FBI Director Christopher Wray raises national security concerns over TikTok