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Why President Trump Wants To Push For A TikTok App Ban


Let's talk about TikTok, shall we? Sure, it's the shiny new thing in social media. And it's super popular with Generation Z. But the clock may be running out on TikTok - see what I did there? - because the Trump administration claims it could be used for espionage. NPR's Jackie Northam explains.


FUTURE: If young Metro don't trust you, I'm going to shoot you.

LIL UZI VERT: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: When you scroll through the TikTok app, there's a constant stream of lively music videos featuring teenagers and 20-somethings and lots of cute, little dogs IN sunglasses performing for the camera.



NORTHAM: But there are going to be some pretty unhappy young people here in the U.S. if the Trump administration gets its way. In an interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the U.S. may ban the Chinese-owned TikTok because it views it as a national security risk.


MIKE POMPEO: Whether it's TikTok or any of the other Chinese communications platforms, apps, infrastructure, this administration taking seriously the requirement to protect the American people from having their information end up in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.

MICHAEL BECKERMAN: TikTok has been just, really, an uplifting thing for families. This is a company and an app that is meant for creativity and to bring joy.

NORTHAM: That's Michael Beckerman, a vice president and head of public policy at TikTok U.S. He denies the Trump administration's charges and says there's no intelligence to be gleaned from the app. TikTok, like other social media platforms, collects data on its users. But Beckerman says TikTok never has, nor will, share that data with Beijing.

BECKERMAN: We have very strong access controls to data. Our servers, as I mentioned, are in Virginia. And the decisions on content and everything else are made at the U.S. level by our U.S. leadership.

NORTHAM: The concern about Beijing stealing data has been building for about five years ever since a cybersecurity attack on the Office of Personnel Management, when sensitive information of more than 20 million U.S. citizens was stolen. Paul Triolo, who focuses on the intersection of politics and technology at the Eurasia Group, says there have been a number of similar incidents since. Triolo also says the concern grew when China introduced a new national security law a couple years ago.

PAUL TRIOLO: And that law basically just says that companies and individuals in China have to cooperate with the Chinese government when it comes to intelligence matters. It's very vague, though. It doesn't say a social media company has to turn over all its data to the Chinese government.

NORTHAM: The Trump administration's effort to ban any Chinese equipment that can be used to steal sensitive data, trade secrets or intellectual property is picking up speed. That even includes thousands of surveillance cameras set up in government buildings and military facilities. Most of them are made by Chinese companies or have Chinese components. All those cameras have to be removed by August 13.

KATHERINE GRONBERG: Hitting the deadline is absolutely going to be tricky. I mean, it's just - it's like - it's less than a month away.

NORTHAM: Katherine Gronberg is with Forescout Technologies, a California-based cybersecurity company. She says it'll be difficult to replace the cameras.

GRONBERG: You know, the fact is is that these markets are dominated, in some cases, by Chinese products. And, in fact, we don't have alternatives that are either made by U.S. or in the U.S. or U.S. allies.

NORTHAM: Eurasia Group's Triolo says the movement against TikTok and other Chinese platforms and tech companies comes at a particularly turbulent time in U.S.-China relations, exacerbated by the trade dispute and the coronavirus pandemic.

TRIOLO: It's a much, much broader problem between the U.S. and China that the tech companies are being dragged into. You know, there's no trust, basically.

NORTHAM: And the administration warns more Chinese-made equipment or apps are in its crosshairs. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE KATANA'S "EVERMORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.