National security and data risks associated with TikTok and Huawei began during the Trump administration, when many dismissed them as another example of former president Trump's 'obsession' with China.
However, the Biden administration, also concerned with tensions between China and Taiwan, reignited discussions on TikTok and Huawei. Since then, the U.S. has banned the sale and import of Huawei and ZTE equipment to prevent 'spying.' Worries over TikTok have increasingly become a more bipartisan issue, with both political parties discussing potential bans or regulations on the app.
Chinese employees' management of U.S. data continues to be a topic of conversation as well. TikTok has negotiated national security contracts to set up governance processes for how the Chinese-owned social media app will handle Americans' user data. However, there have been instances, reported by BuzzFeed News, that employees repeatedly accessed U.S. user data in China in 2022. An internal risk assessment prepared by ByteDance's Internal Audit team found that, "numerous senior employees felt that themselves and their teams are just 'figureheads' who are functionally subject to the control of CN-based teams." Like previous concerns with Huawei, the Biden administration is working to reveal connections between PRC intelligence officers and Chinese companies that handle U.S. data.
The U.S. government recently decided to ban telecommunications and video surveillance equipment from Chinese producers to protect the U.S. communication network. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to expand its preexisting ban on selling and importing Chinese technology from companies that pose risks to U.S. national security. The FCC decision implemented the Secure Equipment Act of 2021, signed by President Biden, and placed restrictions on companies like Huawei, ZTE, Hikvision, and Dauhua from exporting or selling in the United States. These Chinese firms are subject to Chinese laws, which could force them to hand over information to Beijing's security services. The primary concern is that Chinese firms could spy on Americans and collect data to advance Chinese interests. Huawei remains prevented from using Google services and the Play Store via Android smartphones.
With the recent Huawei and ZTE news, the FCC commissioner also signaled that U.S. lawmakers should work to ban TikTok from operating in the United States since the application could be mishandling personal and sensitive data through the China-based parent company ByteDance. The FCC issued the ban after a 4-0 vote and prohibited using public funds to purchase equipment from Chinese companies.
Most concerns around data interception involved different forms of blackmail activity and artificial intelligence operations or development. TikTok previously planned to monitor users' physical locations. The Biden administration has increasingly been interested in working with the Treasury Department and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to set up a deal with Chinese companies to manage better U.S. data acquired by companies with Chinese parent companies.
The U.S. is not the only nation concerned about data leaks to Chinese firms, which could also leak information to the Chinese intelligence services. Australia's Home Affairs Minister recently ordered the cybersecurity authorities to investigate TikTok and its operations in Australia. Australia also recently acknowledged that employees in China access data belonging to Australian users of TikTok. Australia has been attempting to limit the number of people who have access to data to maintain security protocols.
Although the scrutiny of TikTok may seem trivial, the reality is that it is an additional step in the decoupling of data ecosystems during the coming new 'Cold War.' The Biden administration maintained the pressure first implemented by the Trump administration. It continued to curtail semiconductor production in China through sanctions, threatening both Huawei and TikTok in the West. These steps indicate that the Biden administration hopes to fully isolate Chinese firms incrementally before ultimately declaring a 'Cold War.'