TikTok has become enormously popular with teens and young adults globally, and one U.S. senator is sounding the alarm on the security risks that the Chinese-operated app poses to the general public.
"My kids are now in their early 30s and late 20s, so I can't completely regulate what they're doing," Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) recently said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). "But if I had young kids, I wouldn't want them on TikTok."
Warner, a former technology and telecommunications executive who is currently the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, added that TikTok is “literally like a communications network” for the Chinese Communist Party. Because China's laws require a company to make its first allegiance to the Party rather than shareholders or customers, he explained, the Party has the ability to effectively adjust content.
“I’m not saying they create the content,” he said. “But if we were suddenly in a conflict over Taiwan, you could be assured the Communist Party would say: ‘We’re going to de-emphasize any content that appears on TikTok that might say positive things about Taiwan and actually do the reverse.’ So there’s the problem of what we’re getting versus what the people of China are getting. There’s the focus that most parents have in terms of, ‘Oh my gosh, all of my kid’s information is somehow being stored in a foreign country.’”
The Chinese government angle makes TikTok somewhat different compared to American social media tech companies.
“TikTok is at a level even greater than Facebook was at its peak, absorbing enormous amounts of information about any user, literally down to the keystrokes to your eye movements,” Warner said. “Not only the information in your posting but all kinds of things that are happening in the background. And a whole lot of that information, no matter what they say, because the code is being written in Beijing, is ending up somewhere in China.”
'The rest of the world gets this addictive TikTok'
Warner isn’t the only politician who’s shared concerns about the app, which is owned by Beijing-based tech giant ByteDance. Former President Donald Trump, a strong critic of China during his time in the Oval Office, raised the possibility of banning TikTok in the U.S. due to concerns over how it stored user data.
Despite their political differences, Warner recently told Recode that Trump may have been right in his stance on the social media app. Warner's argument is that the TikTok that’s seen in China is “a very different product” than the app used everywhere else in the world.
“What happens in China is there’s a TikTok that encourages you to be scientists, that says good things about President Xi,” Warner said. “It focuses on STEM education. It’s kind of like the ‘eat the spinach’ version of TikTok that goes to the Chinese people, whereas the rest of the world gets this addictive TikTok that may emphasize a lot of things that are maybe not as attractive that you would want as a parent.”
'I’m afraid how that information could be potentially used'
Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of attorneys general launched an investigation into TikTok and the effects it has on young users.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who serves as vice chairman on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has also been vocal in his criticism of TikTok and called for a nationwide ban of the app.
Warner, for his part, does not support a complete and total ban on the app, though he did note that he shares many of the same concerns as his colleague.
“If you’ve got the guys and gals who are writing that code in Beijing, I fear that no matter what they say about having a wall that keeps all this information somehow separate, I’m enough of a techie to know that if you’re dealing in and writing the code, you’re going to get access to a lot of that data,” Warner said. “So I’m afraid how that information could be potentially used to leverage people’s behavior, to expose things that are inappropriate.”
Politicians have raised similar concerns about Facebook parent Meta (META) and how Russian operatives utilized the social media site for disinformation campaigns leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“Just the same way we were concerned about a lot of our information being monetized or manipulated by Facebook, I think you ought to have those same concerns — and even more so — when we’re talking about TikTok,” Warner said.
Warner pointed to one recent example where Facebook's platform was misused, in which an Amnesty International report found that the Myanmar government used Meta as part of a violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims in the country as part of its ethnic cleansing of the minority group.
“Facebook acknowledged that was a problem,” Warner said. “They ultimately moved to try to correct it. But that ability to literally create violence in the case of the Rohingya virtual genocide because of misuse of these platforms — we have to realize that as a potential.”
When it comes to TikTok, Warner wants the company to prove that the personal data of Americans of all ages are not being stored in Beijing.
"But even if they were able to prove that... ultimately, the information can be dialed up or down, based upon the whims of the Communist Party of China," he added. "That really bothers me."
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.