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FBI says China could use TikTok to spy on Americans, including government workers

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The FBI says the video-sharing app TikTok poses national security concerns. The app is owned by the company ByteDance, headquartered in Beijing. And FBI Director Chris Wray told lawmakers yesterday that the Chinese government could use the app to influence users or control their devices. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has introduced a bill that would ban the app nationwide.

We're going to turn to Aynne Kokas. She's professor of media studies and the director of the East Asia Center at the University of Virginia. Her new book is "Trafficking Data: How China Is Winning The Battle For Digital Sovereignty." Professor, TikTok, I think everyone knows you get viral videos, funny ones at that. But tell us about what more TikTok is used for and who uses it.

AYNNE KOKAS: So TikTok has a wide range of uses. Users under the age of 30 are - have used that as a platform for gaining political knowledge. We also see this is a site where people actually use it to search for information about the world. So in addition to it being an entertainment platform, it's also become a form of critical communications infrastructure.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, as we heard, FBI Director Chris Wray and Senator Marco Rubio are among those who say that the Chinese Communist Party could use TikTok to spy on Americans, including government workers. TikTok says, no. It's not happening. But, professor, how would that work? How could the app be used as a spying tool?

KOKAS: So what's really interesting about TikTok is that it's part of a larger Chinese government effort to expand extraterritorial control over digital platforms. So the Chinese government has allowed for and has encouraged Chinese firms to actually engage in national security data audits of any data that's being gathered by a Chinese firm. Now, TikTok, which has a parent company in ByteDance, which is based in Beijing, is subject to those same national security data audits because it shares data with its parent company, ByteDance.

MARTÍNEZ: So the Chinese government really believes that this digital space is actually territory that, I guess, for lack of a better word, could be conquered?

KOKAS: Absolutely. And so this is something that's been very clearly articulated time and time again from the 2010 white paper on the internet in China all the way to the 2020 Hong Kong national security law, which allows oversight of national security interests outside of China.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. Now, Americans use a number of apps owned by Chinese companies. WeChat, that's one that I can think of. Does it make sense, professor, to ban one app and maybe leave the others alone?

KOKAS: So this is where the challenge with the Rubio bill comes out. When we look at all of these wide-ranging apps that are connected to Chinese firms, it's actually almost nonsensical to ban just one when we see platforms in areas like precision agriculture, communications, gaming all connected to Chinese firms. So it's really important to develop more robust data privacy regulations in the United States to protect users.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So banning, then, you would think, is maybe not the correct move altogether?

KOKAS: Essentially, it's playing a game of whack-a-mole as we see this expansion of China's digital territory.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's Aynne Kokas. She's the director of the East Asia Center at the University of Virginia. Her new book is called "Trafficking Data: How China Is Winning The Battle For Digital Sovereignty." Professor, thanks.

KOKAS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUSTY TRAILS' "CONGA STYLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.