RELEASE: Gottheimer Announces Federal Action Against Chinese-owned TikTok

Protecting Children’s Data and National Security. Pushing for Legislation to Give the President Power to Ban TikTok.

Mar 06, 2023
Press
Above: Gottheimer calling for federal action against Chinese-owned TikTok to protect American’s data and national security.

HACKENSACK, NJ — Today, March 6, 2023, at the Bergen County Justice Center, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer joined with New Jersey’s cybersecurity agency to sound the alarm on the threats TikTok and the Chinese Communist Party pose to the safety of our children, our data, and our national security.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made it abundantly clear that it is willing to leverage technology to breach United States institutions, steal our intellectual property, collect data on our children and all U.S. citizens, and access the systems that control our critical infrastructure. TikTok has more than 100 million monthly active users, collects far-reaching and sophisticated data from its users, including usernames, passwords, personally identifiable information, pictures, and videos of millions of Americans.

The U.S. military, federal government, and many state governments, including New Jersey, have banned TikTok on government-issued devices.

TikTok and the Chinese government are a threat to America’s national security and children:

  • China-based employees of TikTok have repeatedly accessed non-public data about American TikTok users. 
    • In 2019, the FTC fined TikTok for knowingly collecting the names, email addresses, pictures, and locations of children under the age of 13 without parental consent.
    • In 2022, TikTok agreed to a class-action settlement for harvesting U.S. personal data from users without their consent. 
    • In 2022, TikTok confirmed that China-based employees could gain remote access to Americans’ data, including public videos and comments.
    • Chinese law obligates TikTok’s parent company to  “support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work.”
  • TikTok’s extreme prevalence in America has given the Chinese government unfettered access and information to our children and Americans. 
    • Studies show that TikTok’s addictive qualities may have a negative impact on children’s mental health. The algorithm is designed to keep users engaged longer, and studies show the more kids and teens spend on social media, the more likely they will be depressed.
    • A Fifth District 13-year-old girl recently had her TikTok account hacked, and changed from private to public — exposing her identity, pictures, and videos. The hacker changed her password and she was completely locked out of the account. Gottheimer’s team was able to contact TikTok to get the account deleted.
  • China is America’s biggest global threat and it has made clear its willingness to use cyberwarfare and surveillance tactics to breach U.S. institutions.
  • Chinese state-sponsored hacking group successfully compromised the computer networks of at least six U.S. state governments between May 2021 and February this year.

Gottheimer’s actions to combat the threat of Chinese-owned TikTok:

  • Gottheimer is pushing for legislation that would grant the President the power to ban TikTok in the United States, or force the sale of its U.S. operations to an American company — if the President believes there is continued data collection and a clear threat to our national security.
  • Gottheimer is writing to TikTok, once again demanding that they immediately cease all data collection of personally identifiable information on American citizens, beginning with our children.

Last year, Gottheimer and his Problem Solvers Caucus Co-Chair Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick wrote a letter to the CEO of TikTok questioning their child data privacy policies and data uses. In response, TikTok made no commitment to protect our country and our children.

“It’s time we gave the President the tools to fight back against TikTok’s information invasion against America’s families. In the wrong hands, this data is an enormous asset to the Chinese Communist Party — a known adversary — and their malign activities. In fact, Chinese law obligates TikTok’s parent company to, and I quote, ‘support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work.’ So TikTok is basically bought and paid for by the Chinese government.” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “Today, I’m taking two concrete steps to battle TikTok’s assault on our children’s privacy. Last July, I wrote a letter to the CEO of TikTok questioning their child data privacy policies. Their response was stunning, inadequate, unproductive, and frankly insulting, to say the least. They made no commitment to protect both our country and our children. They admitted that they collect data on children, including IP addresses and other device information.”

“I do want to thank the Congressman for his leadership on addressing the security issues that TikTok and other national security threats involving technology bring to us here in New Jersey and the United States as a whole,” said Director of the New Jersey Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell & New Jersey’s Chief Information Security Officer Michael Geraghty. “We see this as an ongoing threat that the Congressman is addressing here.”

Gottheimer was joined in Hackensack today by the Director of the New Jersey Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell & New Jersey’s Chief Information Security Officer Michael Geraghty and Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton.

Below: Gottheimer calling for federal action against Chinese-owned TikTok to protect American’s data and national security.

Gottheimer’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

Good morning. We’re here today at the Bergen County Justice Center to sound the alarm and take action against the threats TikTok and its overlord, the Chinese Communist Party, pose to the safety of our children and to America’s national security.

The lack of transparency and accountability from TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, is leading to grave consequences for our families and this country. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I believe it’s time we put an end to their endless and shameless privacy violations and data collection on our children and families. 

Listen, I get it. Plenty of teenagers, like my own daughter, love watching and making TikTok videos with their friends — and so do lots of parents. And the Chinese government loves that they do. They are building lengthy data files on millions of kids across our country, learning and capitalizing on their every move online. They are playing the short-and-long game, and will have this data on them for decades to come — their habits, their likes, where they shop, and what they read, and, potentially, what’s on their devices. Even what they do on their other apps and social media. My friend and Co-Chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick and I wrote TikTok months ago, asking them questions about what they are doing with all of this data. Their response, which I’ll get to, was shocking — and telling.

The Chinese Communist Party — the CCP — has made it abundantly clear that it is willing to leverage technology to breach United States institutions, steal our intellectual property, collect data on our children and all U.S. citizens, and access the systems that control our critical infrastructure.

Just look at the Chinese spy balloon that we shot down last month. This was a completely unacceptable, aggressive, and provocative move by the Chinese government, and — as a member of the House Intelligence Committee — I believe that we need to take concrete action to curb China’s push to influence, infiltrate, and undermine our country.

TikTok is clearly being used as yet another tool in the Chinese government’s arsenal against America, and it’s high time we address its serious impacts on our children and our national security. It’s time we gave the President the tools to fight back against TikTok’s information invasion against America’s families.

First, we know that the popular Chinese social media company, TikTok, has access to our kids’ and to Americans’ data — posing a serious threat to our safety, privacy, and security.

According to leaked audio from more than eighty internal TikTok meetings, China-based employees of the company have repeatedly accessed non-public data about American TikTok users. Just last year, TikTok agreed to a class-action settlement for harvesting U.S. personal data from users without their consent.

Plus, back in 2019, the FTC fined TikTok for knowingly collecting the names, email addresses, pictures, and locations of children under the age of 13 without parental consent.

This past November, TikTok confirmed that China-based employees could gain remote access to Americans’ data, including public videos and comments. TikTok has more than 100 million monthly active users, collects far-reaching and sophisticated data from its users, including usernames, passwords, personally identifiable information, pictures, and videos of millions of Americans. In the wrong hands, this data is an enormous asset to the Chinese Communist Party — a known adversary — and their malign activities. In fact, Chinese law obligates TikTok’s parent company to, and I quote, “support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work.”

So TikTok is basically bought and paid for by the Chinese government.

Based on the Chinese Communist Party’s dismal track record on data privacy and widespread use of government-sponsored surveillance on companies and citizens, it’s no stretch to assume that American data from TikTok has made its way to the Chinese government.

Even the U.S. military, federal government, and many state governments, including here in New Jersey, have banned TikTok on government-issued devices.

This data can be shared, sold, and stored forever, which raises serious concerns for the safety of American users, of our children, their IP addresses, and other personal information. This data could easily yield sensitive information about users’ relationships, behaviors, preferences, and vulnerabilities. It lets the Chinese government build a full profile on all of our citizens, specifically with our children. Plus, it strategically influences what videos and content users are shown.

Second, in addition to data privacy risks, TikTok’s extreme prevalence in America has given the Chinese government unfettered access to our children. Think about that — with this one app, China has the ability to control what a generation of kids sees and consumes every single day. I know that for many young people, TikTok is their most used app and a main source of news.

That means that through TikTok, China has the ability to slowly and methodically undermine our country by feeding our children CCP propaganda, using the app as a weapon against America.

And, China plays the long game. They are willing to wait decades. They have said that the best way to beat America isn’t militarily, but from within — for us to turn on one another and beat ourselves. Based on what’s been declassified, the Chinese government sees us like a frog in boiling water — swimming around, slowly cooking ourselves, as we become more divided and unable to act.

Third, I continue to hear concerns from families regarding TikTok’s misuse of data.

For example, I recently heard from a father in my district whose 13-year-old daughter’s TikTok account had been hacked. Her account was changed from private to public — exposing her identity, pictures, and videos to the entire world. The hacker changed her password, and his daughter was completely locked out of the account.

After multiple attempts to contact TikTok for help, they were never able to speak with a representative. The family reached out to me, and my team, and we were able to get ahold of TikTok and get the account completely deleted. But it was no picnic.

If it was this easy for a hacker to gain access to this young girl’s sensitive information from TikTok, imagine how easy it is for the Chinese government to steal data from every single American who uses the app.

Not to mention, we know from studies that social media use is having serious mental health effects on our children, and other risks, like how easy it is to buy drugs through apps, and I have spoken out strongly to encourage immediate reforms.

Increased social media use among kids has been linked to development of eating disorders, depression, and other mental health challenges. Our children are worse off because of these apps’ addictive qualities, as we saw in a recently releasedstudy. It showed that sites like TikTok may have a negative impact on children’s mental health. The algorithm is designed to keep users engaged longer, and studies show the more kids and teens spend on social media, the more likely they’ll be depressed.

TikTok claims that they have a “Kids Mode,” but it does little to restrict the content our children see and does even less to protect minors’ data.

Our children’s exposure to explicit, violent, or otherwise dangerous content on TikTok remains unchecked, and without adequate guardrails, our kids will continue to be plagued by serious mental health challenges — in addition to their massive data theft.

Today, I’m taking two concrete steps to battle TikTok’s assault on our children’s privacy. Last July, I wrote a letter to the CEO of TikTok questioning their child data privacy policies. Their response was stunning, inadequate, unproductive, and frankly insulting, to say the least. They made no commitment to protect both our country and our children. They admitted that they collect data on children, including “IP addresses and other device information.”

They also admitted that they have a right to collect “information on users they obtain from other sources,” including Facebook or Google. Yes, you heard me right.  TikTok — an arm of the Communist Party of China — admitted that they are stealing and collecting our children’s personal and private information.

Last week, in what appeared to be an altruistic move, TikTok introduced a new children protection policy for parents, adding to their Family Pairing feature, supposedly limiting the default screen time for those under eighteen to 60 minutes a day — or seven hours a week. Yes, seven hours.

Interestingly, somehow, TikTok left out their greatest profit making and privacy-busting provisions in their new policy. Their big PR move was to limit time — not to stop stealing our personal and private information. Why won’t they commit to stop stealing information about our children? I’ll tell you why I think — this whole thing, TikTok, is part of a grand plan to suck as much personal information and data from our citizens, including a generation of America’s children.

So, this week, I am writing a follow-up letter to the pablum I received from TikTok this past year, and, again, will demand that TikTok immediately cease all data collection of personally identifiable information on American citizens, beginning with our children.

And let me be clear: Unless TikTok immediately stops stealing our children’s and citizens’ data, I will fight to ban the use of this rogue Chinese Communist government-controlled application that has the potential to damage the lives of so many.

I also strongly support legislation that would grant the President the power to ban TikTok in the United States, or force the sale of its U.S. operations to an American company, if the President believes there is continued data collection and a clear threat to our national security.

I am working with other members on that legislation right now.

Unless I’m missing something, it seems clear to me that the Chinese Communist government is using TikTok to steal data from our children and families. They are using it as a means to infiltrate our citizens, their data, and information that could put our safety and national security at risk. We must give the President the power to take action.

Keep in mind, it’s not just our children who are at risk.

China is our biggest global threat and they have made it clear it is willing to use cyberwarfare tactics to breach United States institutions, and TikTok is a clear and obvious threat to our national security.

In fact, a Chinese state-sponsored hacking group successfully compromised the computer networks of at least six U.S. state governments between May 2021 and February this year.

To recap, we know that the Chinese government views America as an enemy, we know that they are actively trying to spy on us, we know that TikTok gives the CCP access to millions of Americans’ data, and we know that Chinese state-sponsored cyber-crime groups have successfully hacked American state governments.

We are running out of time — and today I’m proposing more concrete action.

We must take swift, concrete action to protect our national security, safeguard our families, infrastructure, and economy, fight back against foreign aggression, and better the lives of our children.  This is about protecting our national security from an adversary who wants to do harm to America’s standing as the leader of the free world.

It will take every level of government working together to eliminate threats to our national security and private data from TikTok and the Chinese Communist Party.  Remember, the Chinese government is the enemy, not each other.  Here in the greatest country in the world, if we remember to put our country first, and come together, I know that our best days will always be ahead of us.

Thank you, God bless you, God bless our troops, and God bless the United States of America.

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