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TikTok is a ticking time bomb we must defuse before it's too late

TikTok is a ticking time bomb we must defuse before it's too late

U.S.-China relations have reached a point where the possibility of a full-blown conflict between the two nations cannot be denied. 

Clearly, no rational person wants this scenario to occur. But if it does, it’s likely the first “shots fired” would not be through conventional weaponry, but a secret weapon China possesses that even at this very moment is locked on to over 150 million American citizens: TikTok. 

As of now, with the law calling for a sale or ban of TikTok giving its parent company 12 months to take action, we are completely unprepared and defenseless against this secret weapon. To do something about this, however, we need to understand exactly why TikTok is such a danger. 

First, it’s important to realize that the prospect of war with China is not a fearmongering or partisan viewpoint. It is a concern shared by analysts across the political spectrum. Michael Beckley and Hal Brands of the conservative American Enterprise Institute said the risk signals are “flashing red” and Michael T. Klare, a correspondent for the progressive publication The Nation, warns that a war with China would “take this planet to hell and back.” 

But amid the growing tensions between the two nations, why is TikTok such a national security risk? Because the seemingly innocuous app can simultaneously serve as an apparatus for psychological and asymmetric warfare. 

Psychological warfare includes propaganda, disinformation, misinformation and mal-information to sow confusion, discord and chaos among a populace. Asymmetric warfare broadly encompasses multiple forms of non-conventional combat such as terrorism, sabotage and cyber warfare, to weaken an opponent. 

Experts widely agree that the wars of the future will rely on less conventional warfare and more on psychological, informational and asymmetric warfare. 

Let’s start with psychological warfare. Research shows that all social media platforms effectively disseminate disinformation, misinformation and mal-information. But what makes TikTok different? 

Most social media platforms in the U.S. are motivated primarily by profit. ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, is motivated by profit but is also a Chinese company. And as a Chinese company, it is subject to laws stating that it must comply with requests by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its intelligence agencies to access any of their data at any time. 

How certain are we that the CCP would demand access to TikTok’s vast reservoirs of data? For one thing, there is reason enough to believe they have already been doing so

But beyond that, think strategically. You are at war with a formidable rival and have access to a powerful weapon that could cripple them while minimizing the loss of resources and casualties on your side. The question isn’t why would you use such a weapon; the question is why would you not?  

Let’s visualize an example of the kind of havoc that TikTok could create. 

Imagine a nurse named Jeff who works at a major hospital in a big city. Like 150 million other Americans, Jeff has TikTok installed on his phone, and it knows almost everything there is to know about him such as that he’s an avid collector of Funko Pop dolls. 

While at work one day, Jeff gets an email from his favorite online retailer promoting a 50 percent off sale on Funko Pop figures. Jeff is ecstatic. He clicks on the ad without a second thought. 

Unfortunately, the email was not really from a retailer. It was a cleverly disguised fake created by Chinese state-sponsored hackers who obtained Jeff’s data from TikTok and have now breached the hospital’s network where he works, gaining access to the protected health information and personally identifiable information of hundreds of thousands of patients. 

There are many sinister ways this data could be exploited for asymmetric warfare. For instance, roughly 3 million Americans have pacemakers. With pacemakers now connected to the internet of medical things, skilled hackers could take control of the devices. Threat actors could also hack into lifesaving hospital devices such as drug pumps and deliver fatal dosages

These are just two among many possibilities, and health care is just one of many critical industries. 

Imagine thousands being targeted across key industries including government, banking, law enforcement, grid infrastructure and supply chain management. While there is no evidence that the cargo ship that crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore was the result of cyber-terrorism, threat actors could hack into and sabotage maritime navigation systems, resulting in many such incidents across the country. 

At the same time this kind of asymmetric warfare is being waged, Chinese intelligence agencies could wage psychological warfare using not just TikTok but every other platform and app that its users are connected to, all of which they have data on thanks to TikTok. Tidal waves of bad information could cause so much chaos that the U.S. would be brought to its knees and unable to mount an effective response. It would be a perfect storm.  

TikTok has been mounting a PR campaign urging the public to push back against the measure since it passed the House. But people should be skeptical about claims by the brand or its CEO that it keeps users’ data safe, especially in light of ex-employees anonymously testifying that this has not been the case.  

Addressing this security risk will be challenging because it involves the issue of civil liberties, a topic that many Americans are understandably sensitive to. But there are arguably situations where the risks to the nation’s security and public safety are simply too great. We therefore can and should implement security measures that are reasonable, temporary and subject to review and change. 

It’s helpful to remember that liberty is never absolute even in the most stable of times. Speed limits, smoking laws and zoning regulations are all examples of balanced limitations placed on liberties for public health and safety.  

I agree with the move to sell or ban TikTok. Although it’s not a perfect solution, the threat is just too serious. Even if those measures aren't implemented, there are ways to address the risk at every level — personal, organizational and national. 

But the first order of business must be to educate the public about the scale and urgency of the danger as much as possible. And while many Americans recognize TikTok as a threat, opinions are largely divided along generational and partisan lines. 

The public must understand that this is a nonpartisan issue that affects us all and that lawmakers have acted accordingly.

But we need to hurry. The clock is ticking.    

Craig Albert, Ph.D., is a professor of political science and the graduate director of the Master of Arts in Intelligence and Security Studies at Augusta University

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