TikTok threatens national security: Italy and the United States on the alert

The beautiful country spied on by China? After the harsh stance of the United States, Italy also opens its eyes to TikTok, the famous app owned by the Chinese company ByteDance which in September 2021 reached 1 billion of monthly active usersthe. According to rumors reported from “la Repubblica”, the Copasirthe Parliamentary Security Committee, would have decided to launch a fact-finding investigation to examine the dangers, the infiltration capacity of the social network and try to keep possible threats under control.

It is not the first time that our country has decided to keep TikTok under observation. Already in 2020, in fact, during the Conte II government, a procedure to verify the use that the Government of China makes of the sensitive data of Italian users registered on the Chinese social network. The Agency for information and external security (Aise) and the Department of information for security (Dis) took care of it.

TikTok, access to journalist data

Why are we talking about it now? For what the New York Times describes as the “smoking gun” of espionage, perhaps concocted by Beijing, long denied by the company. ByteDance has admitted to having spied on the location of the journalists.

Strategies that are good for business and cyber security

Even the Financial Times has denounced ByteDance’s admission “that it had inappropriately obtained user data, including a Financial Times reporter, in order to analyze their whereabouts as part of an internal investigation into the leaks.” Confirming the ease with which the Chinese social network can get hold of and use data from its users.

For its part, TikTok always has declared to store the data of its US users in the United States (by default stored in Oracle’s cloud infrastructure) and not to comply with the content moderation rules set by the Chinese government (such as those on censorship). However, the company has come under constant scrutiny in recent months and acknowledged in July that its non-US employees did indeed have access to US user data.

In June, Buzzfeed News reported that China-based ByteDance employees repeatedly accessed non-public data (such as phone numbers and birthdays) of US users, while Forbes said ByteDance planned to use TikTok “to monitor the personal position of some specific American citizens”, which the company denied.

FBI: TikTok may be a national security risk

Last November, the FBI sounded the alarm about the use of TikTok, warning that the Chinese government could use the app to influence American users and/or control their devices. “The possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control the data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used to influence operations if it wanted to, or to control the software on millions of devices, the which gives him an opportunity to technically compromise personal devices,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said before the House Homeland Security Committee on global threats to the United States.

The current Chinese law on National Security (NSL) obliges foreign and domestic companies doing business in China to to share your data with the Government. Therefore, there are serious concerns that the Communist Party of China (CPC) is using this legal instrument to collect sensitive intellectual property, trade secrets and personal data. For Wray, “the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s ideas, innovation and economic security [gli USA] it is foreign intelligence and the threat of economic espionage from China”. In the hearing, Wray also stated that Chinese law requires companies to “do whatever the government wants them to do in terms of sharing information or serving as a tool of the Chinese government.”

A published report in 2020 by Foreign Policy found that Alibaba and Baidu have assisted the MSS – the highest authority on digital intelligence and other entities of the security services – in requests for analysis of large amounts of data collected in state intelligence operations. The FBI has shifted its focus to China in recent years. In July, Wray said Beijing was “the greatest long-term threat to our economic and national security” and accused China of meddling in recent elections.

The legal prohibitions on the use of TikTok

Recently, the House of Representatives, i.e. the lower house of the US Congress, ordered the immediate removal of the TikTok app from all its devices. The decision comes after Congress included in the 4,000-page omnibus package it passed the bill NO TIKTOK ON GOVERNMENT DEVICES ACT aimed at banning the use of the popular Chinese app by government devices (Executive Branch). The provision contemplates “exceptions [solo] for law enforcement activities, national security interests and activities, and security researchers,” while noting that for any use that falls under these exceptions, government agencies must “develop and document risk mitigation actions for such use”. It was House Administrative Office Chief Catherine L. Szpindor who informed her staffers and lawmakers that TikTok had been banned “from all devices managed by the House,” noting that the decision would come in effective immediately.

As stated in the document, the Office of Cybersecurity also “deemed the TikTok mobile app as a high risk to users due to a number of security risks”.

Recently Taiwan banned TikTok from the public sector, listing it as a “product harmful to national cybersecurity”. We know that Taiwan has long been under threat of Chinese invasion.

And last but not least, the states of New Jersey and Ohio have also said they will join others in banning the use of TikTok on government-owned and operated devices.

In the meantime, the American government has long negotiations underway with TikTok to find a solution that can reassure institutions and citizens about the safety of the social network.

Europe and Italy

Even the European Union would be moving. Indeed, according to Reuters, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew and EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager have discussed “aggressive” data collection and surveillance in the United States in recent days.

Italy seems willing to move in the same direction. It is possible that for now it will limit itself to recommendations and warnings, for example not to use TikTok on government officials’ mobile phones and that it will wait to move in a coordinated way with Europe.

What is certain is that the attention on TikTok by Governments seems destined to grow in the coming months.


TikTok threatens national security: Italy and the United States on the alert – Digital Agenda