The information-age cold war with China heated up a few degrees Friday. The battlefield du jour: TikTok, the goofy, wildly popular mobile phone app.
Generation Z loves TikTok. President Trump has threatened to ban it. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo calls it a national security threat. And now the White House, according to a Bloomberg report, is preparing an order to force TikTok's Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to sell it off, presumably to a U.S. company.
The Trump administration's choice of an app that teenagers use to share comedy skits and dance moves as its cyberdefense beachhead, despite an absence of any proof the app has been used against U.S. interests, is pure 2020, with the president swirling hard-headed concerns about national security and corporate espionage into a broader campaign of economic and diplomatic gamesmanship against an increasingly powerful rival. Early in July he told television interviewer Greta Van Susteren that he viewed banning TikTok as one way to retaliate against China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
In a news conference Thursday, with U.S. coronavirus deaths rising past 150,000, Trump said: "It's China's fault. And that's the way it is."
The message may be muddy, but it's clear China is on a quest to compromise information systems and pull in as much data about Americans as it can, said William J. Holstein, a China analyst and technology hawk.
"China is engaging in information systems warfare on a global scale," said Holstein, author of "The New Art of War: China's Deep Strategy Inside the United States."
"It seems silly, but I don't think they're really interested in 17-year-olds doing somersaults," Holstein said. "They're looking for information that helps them get into systems. Let's say you work in military high tech, and they access your daughter's phone. They can use that information to try to access your own phone, your email, your computer."
To date, however, no one has produced evidence that China is using TikTok in this way.
"There's never been any smoking-gun evidence (the Chinese government has) manipulated TikTok or stolen user data," said Alec Stapp, director of technology policy at the Progressive Policy Institute. "The app asks for a lot of user data, but so do U.S. apps."
Still, several government agencies have ordered employees to remove the app from their phones. App researchers have discovered that TikTok was copying the clipboard data in iPhones every few seconds. TikTok had said that was an anti-spam measure and ended the practice after it was publicized.